Julian Fleming Enjoying “First Real Spring” at Ohio State After COVID-19 And Injuries Derailed His First Two

By Griffin Strom on March 29, 2022 at 8:35 am
Julian Fleming

In some ways, Julian Fleming’s third spring in scarlet and gray is more like his first.

Between COVID-19 and multiple injury setbacks, the five-star recruit and No. 1 wideout in the class of 2020 hasn’t yet had a full spring on the field during his tenure at Ohio State. Finally “110 percent” healthy during the spring for the first time as a college football player, the moment has arrived for Fleming to take meaningful strides toward tapping into his sky-high potential this offseason.

“This is my actual first real spring ball, especially coming through everything,” Fleming said after the Buckeyes’ second spring practice on March 10. “So I mean, it's been a steady grind and I've changed a lot of my habits, inside and outside of the Woody. Just trying to constantly make sure my body's right and maintain it and avoid those little injuries that I've had. So it's been good though. I feel better than I ever have.”

Fleming figured to make waves in short order upon setting foot on Ohio State campus as the third-highest-ranked recruit in program history at the time, per the 247Sports Composite. But Fleming never truly had a chance to flash in practice or in the spring game, as the world was put on standstill due to the COVID-19 pandemic after just two Buckeye practices that March.

The Pennsylvania native wasn’t the instant impact weapon that many assumed he’d be in his first season, catching just seven balls for 74 yards on the year. But there was plenty of justification for his limited production. The Buckeyes played just eight games all year, and the unconventional lead-up to the season was anything but optimal for first-year players at the highest level of college football. Even so, Fleming earned a start in the Big Ten Championship Game while Chris Olave was out, showing just how highly Brian Hartline and company thought of the freshman.

But after the season concluded, Hartline revealed that Fleming underwent shoulder surgery to fix an issue that had been plaguing him since his high school career at Southern Columbia in Catawissa, Pennsylvania. Subsequently, Fleming was limited for all of last spring and did not play in the spring game while he recovered from the procedure.

Fleming had a healthier start to 2021, but ended up sidelined once again with a hamstring injury that forced him to sit out four games through the middle of the season and play special teams only in another.

“It was definitely disappointing, just the shoulder and then all the other stuff that I've had. All the little tweaks and things here and there,” Fleming said. “But like I said, my routine's changed a lot and I feel like those obstacles have made me stronger as a person and just stronger as a player just seeing as I overcome them and constantly just make my way back into things. But to be the player I want to become, I've got to put my body first, I've got to put my mind first and I've just got to continue to improve day in and day out.”

While Fleming finished with just 12 catches for 86 yards and a touchdown as a sophomore, his classmate in the 2020 cycle blossomed into a college football superstar at the same position, as Jaxon Smith-Njigba rewrote the Buckeye record books. Even true freshman receivers Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka each finished with significantly more receiving yardage than Fleming, and Harrison played 78 more snaps on the year.

But even if his individual season was a disappointing one, Fleming found joy in watching his stablemates excel.

“I can't say it's frustrating. Like I said, my goal is to be a better teammate and continue to be a better teammate. And those are my guys. Jaxon and I came in together,” Fleming said. “We were here the year before Marvin and (Emeka) came in and they went out and did their thing. So I'm happy for them, I'm happy for everything they did. We're just looking to thrive as a unit.”

Fleming doesn’t have to look far to find inspiration in his own position room. Fifth-year senior Kamryn Babb, a Buckeye captain in 2021, has missed three full seasons at Ohio State due to repeated ACL tears. When Fleming has gone through tough moments amid injuries the past couple years, he has often turned to Babb for advice.

“Kam and I, we talked a lot about stuff like that. And all the times I kind of get disappointed in myself and get down on myself about just the little things that I've had going on, I just always think back to Kam,” Fleming said. “He's been through it all. He's been here a while. He's just had constant, constant injuries. And it's great to see him back on the field now doing his thing. He's just a great dude.”

Beyond the injuries, Fleming has had to play catch-up in learning Ohio State’s intricate offense, which is far more complex than the one he operated in during high school. Even route-running was an adjustment for Fleming at the next level, but he has started to make strides in that area after several years in the program.

“I definitely feel I've just gradually made progressions and progressions every year. And I've had to progress past the injuries because then I come back a little bit rusty or take a step back and then I feel like it's constantly two steps forward,” Fleming said. “So I feel like right now, my route running is at its best. Like I said, I feel good. I feel fast. I feel strong. So I'm just gonna continue my routine right now and hopefully sky's the limit.”

But learning the playbook, in particular, has been a real point of growth for Fleming, who said his understanding of Day’s system has grown exponentially since he arrived a little over two years ago.

“Completely different. Like we were talking about full concepts,” Fleming said. “At one point I just came in, I only knew one position. So now I'm at the point where I'm knowing three to four positions all in the offense. And just knowing that concept has helped me so much in grasping just the whole offense.”

Fleming said he doesn’t feel like he has anything to prove this season, but with Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson both gone, he’ll have more of a shot to get on the field than ever before. A starting job still isn’t guaranteed, given that Harrison and Egbuka are supremely promising talents in their own rights.

It’s taken longer than expected for Fleming thus far, but his best offseason yet could put him in prime position to have a breakout year following a standout spring in Columbus.

“I kind of think it is the way it is. And I kind of think the route I took might have been different than some others and it definitely might not have been the best route for me,” Fleming said. “But I made it here and I'm still here. So that's what I'm really happy to see. Just being able to overcome those obstacles has made me so much more confident in myself and what I could do.”

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