Julian Fleming’s Ohio State highlight reel wasn’t that extensive entering his third year in the program.
But in just two performances as a junior, Fleming has already given spectators several plays to choose from if tasked with spotlighting a singular standout moment by the former five-star prospect.
Fleming wowed fans with a toe-tap touchdown in heavy traffic in the corner of the end zone against Toledo as part of a two-score first half in his season debut. Fleming flashed his run-after-catch ability by breaking the ankles of a Wisconsin defender in the open field on a 31-yard pass play this past weekend and showed off his strength on the same drive by muscling through three Badgers to cross the plane for his third score in two weeks.
tuddy mood pic.twitter.com/4qoUfeD7BT— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) September 26, 2022
As for Ryan Day’s preference, the Buckeye head coach is partial to the latter play by the 6-foot-2 target.
“I like the one he caught where he ran a couple of guys over to finish it off. I mean, just the toughness, the physicality,” Day said at a press conference Tuesday. “You know, he had a really good offseason with Mick in the weight room, and you can see it pay off right there.”
The recent success has been a long time coming for Fleming, who watched 2020 classmates like Jaxon Smith-Njigba launch into stardom last year while he struggled to get off the ground, catching just 19 balls for 160 yards in his first two years.
The heralded recruit saw his progress stunted by multiple injuries over the past couple seasons, and it looked as though 2022 might be more of the same for Fleming. After Day touted Fleming’s offseason as his best yet as a Buckeye, he tweaked an injury in the leadup to the season opener that ultimately cost him the first two games of the year.
“It ripped me apart a little bit at first. But just being able to talk to some of my teammates, thinking about some of my teammates that have been through so many things and have been able to come back, it just kind of kept me in a positive head,” Fleming said after Ohio State’s win over Toledo. “And just to think that there are so many other things in the world that could really be happening, and I'm complaining about a little tweak. So I just had to take it on the chest, come in with a positive attitude, help my teammates out as much as possible and just get the treatment I needed.”
But Fleming’s made his presence felt with authority over the last two weeks, and his arrival couldn’t have come at a better time for the Buckeyes. No matter the timeline of his emergence, the Day is happy to see the strides Fleming’s made since entering the program.
“Everybody has their own journey, and everyone has a different background of where they come from. And he's on his own journey,” Day said. “And I think he's made a lot of progress in his few years here, and I think now he's playing his best football. He has come a long way in his development.”
“I've been through a lot of adversity. I've been through a lot of things that a lot of people haven't been. A lot of things that I didn't expect to go through. Without those things, I wouldn't be in the position I am right now.”– Julian Fleming
Smith-Njigba’s own injury issue opened the door for Fleming and other Buckeye wideouts to step into more prominent roles over the first third of the season. Fleming hasn’t exactly been the focal point of the Ohio State passing game in Smith-Njigba’s absence, as four Buckeyes have caught more passes and five have gained more receiving yards so far this year, but he’s quickly become a go-to target in the red zone for C.J. Stroud.
While Day would love to have his top wideout back at full health, the play of Fleming, Emeka Egbuka, Marvin Harrison Jr. and other Buckeye pass catchers has been a bright spot for the nation’s No. 11 pass attack anyway.
“Having Marvin and Emeka and now Julian, Xavier Johnson, that's a whole different group than we had last year. It was Chris (Olave), Garrett (Wilson) and Jaxon, and you didn't have any three of those guys out there,” Day said. “And Jeremy Ruckert was the tight end. So I think what we've done is, we've built the offense around those guys now, which is a little bit of a different feel. And I think C.J. has embraced that, and he's gotten some chemistry with those guys over time. And those guys have settled into some roles, which has been, really the blessing, the silver lining behind not having Jaxon here for some of these games.”
Despite missing out on opportunities to break out earlier on, as many expected given his recruiting status, Fleming said he’s learned to embrace the “trials and tribulations” he’s faced along the way to his eventual success.
“I don't think it's the restart of my career. I think it's a building block,” Fleming said. “I've been through a lot of adversity. I've been through a lot of things that a lot of people haven't been. A lot of things that I didn't expect to go through. Without those things, I wouldn't be in the position I am right now. I wouldn't be the player I am right now. So I just think those past two years, they're just years to build on, they're years to add on, they're years to look back on and kind of look back on what built me into what I am right now.”
Fleming’s seven catches for 90 yards and three touchdowns are impressive across just two games, but catching the ball is only part of what he brings to the table for the Ohio State offense. Named an Iron Buckeye for his work in the weight room over the offseason, Fleming’s 205-pound frame has helped him become perhaps the best blocker in Brian Hartline’s position room.
Fleming has previously cited the Wing-T offense employed at Southern Columbia High School in Pennsylvania as a reason his route-running took longer to develop at the next level. Still, it might have given him a leg up in the blocking department. Day said his run blocking was one trait that made Fleming a standout recruit in the first place, and now he’s showing he can use it just as effectively against Big Ten opponents.
“His physicality, his work ethic, his ability to go get the ball, I think you can see. What you didn't really notice probably, or maybe you have to go back and watch, is just how physical he is in the run game,” Day said. “So that's a huge advantage for us in the run game that probably not a lot of people are talking about. Cracking safeties and going down and being physical where, in the run game, typically there's somebody extra coming down in the box. We know that. We've talked about this for years. Well, if you have a wide receiver like Julian, like Emeka, like Marv, like X – some of these guys who are going in and making blocks on those safeties – well, now we can get the ball to the corner. And that makes a big difference. So that part's big.”
That propensity for springing runs as a committed blocker will earn Fleming more reps in a stacked position group at Ohio State, and one that will get even more competitive should Smith-Njigba return from injury relatively soon.
“It is satisfying, but sometimes you just can't be fully satisfied. You got to keep looking for that little extra thing, that little extra thing to get better at, that little extra thing to improve on.”– Julian Fleming
But make no mistake; Day loves what he’s seen from Fleming as a pure receiver, and the third-year Buckeye looks more like the complete package he was long thought to be with each passing week.
“Even in the pass game, you can see how physical he was on a couple of those runs after he caught the ball. In particular, the touchdown. Just strong and powerful,” Day said. “And you have to understand what kind of a receiver you are. And because of his strength, he's a mismatch for a lot of DBs.”
Fleming hopes it’s just the beginning of his rise, though, and knows there’s still plenty he can do to sharpen his skills to put forth even better performances in the future.
“It is satisfying, but sometimes you just can't be fully satisfied. You got to keep looking for that little extra thing, that little extra thing to get better at, that little extra thing to improve on,” Fleming said. “So I'm still looking to improve on and off the field and in every aspect of the game.”