Fourth Season at Ohio State Crucial for Julian Fleming's Future As He Aims for Career Year in Loaded Position Room

By Griffin Strom on May 27, 2023 at 8:35 am
Julian Fleming

Brian Hartline took issue with an early offseason list of the 10 best returning wide receivers in college football.

Considering two of his star pupils, Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka, took the top two spots, that might seem a little strange. But the Ohio State offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach publicly declared on Twitter back in February that the list featured one major omission.

On the eve of the NFL draft last month, Eleven Warriors asked Jaxon Smith-Njigba how many Buckeye wideouts he expected to be present at next year’s draft awaiting a potential first-round selection. His response?

“I think we’ll have three here next year,” the No. 20 overall pick in the 2023 NFL draft replied. “Three of them.”

Neither Hartline nor Smith-Njigba actually said his name, but both statements made it clear that members of the Ohio State wide receiver room have high hopes for what Julian Fleming can accomplish in 2023.

If Egbuka’s talent has been overshadowed by Harrison, that goes double for Fleming. While his stablemates have appeared on countless lists like the one Hartline referenced, as well as plenty of early 2024 mock drafts as first-round picks, Fleming has largely been out of sight and out of mind this offseason. 

An injury kept him from participating in Ohio State’s spring practice schedule in March and April, and it was hardly the first time an ailment has held Fleming back during his Buckeye career. Fleming didn’t have a proper spring before his freshman season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and underwent offseason shoulder surgery that kept him sidelined for the spring of 2021. A hamstring injury cost Fleming four games as a sophomore, but he healed up enough to have his “first real spring ball” last year.

Through his first two years, the five-star prospect who was the highest-rated wideout recruit in Ohio State history at the time of his commitment, had only caught 19 passes for 160 yards and one touchdown in scarlet and gray. Those numbers hardly reflected the potential that led many to believe he’d be an impact player immediately upon hitting the field for the Buckeyes.

By all accounts, Fleming’s offseason in 2022 was the best of his career, not to mention his healthiest. But that changed when Fleming tweaked an injury during preseason camp, forcing him to miss the first two games of the year and threatening to stall any progress he made in the preceding months.

Once Fleming got on the field, though, he made up for lost time. In a Week 3 matchup against Toledo, Fleming scored two touchdowns on just three catches. The next week it was a career-high 67 yards and a score in the Buckeyes’ Big Ten opener against Wisconsin. Following the first game back from Ohio State’s bye week, Fleming had a 100-yard performance under his belt and a five-game streak with at least one touchdown reception.

Fleming didn’t get in the end zone again for the rest of the year, but turned in five more multi-catch performances and finished the season with 34 receptions for 533 yards and six touchdowns. Those numbers far exceeded his production from his first two years as Fleming finally flashed the five-star talent he always possessed.

However, Fleming’s stats still paled in comparison to those of Harrison and Egbuka, who both notched 1,000-yard seasons, caught 74 or more passes and racked up double-digit touchdowns. So while Harrison became a unanimous All-American and a Biletnikoff Award finalist and Egbuka a second-team All-Big Ten selection, Fleming wasn’t even an honorable mention on the all-conference list.

Despite being in the program a year longer than Harrison and Egbuka and entering as a more highly touted recruit than either of them, Fleming could face an uphill battle again in 2023 when it comes to taking targets away from the Buckeyes’ two top pass catchers. Not to mention, Ohio State will have a new starter under center to replace two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and No. 2 overall draft pick C.J. Stroud.

But you only have to go back two seasons to see that three Buckeye wideouts can simultaneously emerge as first-round draft prospects on the same roster, even with a first-time starting quarterback. 

In 2021, Stroud’s first season as QB1, targets were split between Smith-Njigba, Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave. Despite being the youngest and most unproven commodity of the three, Smith-Njigba broke out as perhaps the best of the bunch, rewriting Ohio State’s record books with a 95-catch, 1,606-yard campaign. 

That didn’t stunt the progress of Wilson or Olave, who both caught at least 65 passes and 12 touchdowns and combined for more than 2,000 receiving yards. The pair were drafted back-to-back in the first round that April, both turned in 1,000-yard rookie seasons in the NFL and Wilson was named the Offensive Rookie of the Year for his efforts.

There could be even more mouths to feed on the Ohio State offense this season. Cade Stover returns after a breakout year at tight end in 2022, Xavier Johnson comes back after discussing a bigger role in the offense with Hartline and company at the end of last season and heralded freshman receivers Carnell Tate and Brandon Inniss will also push for immediate playing time.

Depending on the development of Ohio State’s new starting quarterback, the final stats for the Buckeyes’ wideouts may not be as gaudy across the board as they were in 2021, when Stroud threw for 4,435 yards and 44 touchdowns. But Fleming demonstrated his ability in 2022, and if he can build on that season as a fourth-year Buckeye, he’ll have a shot to put himself in conversations with the likes of Harrison and Egbuka as he tries to make his biggest impact to date and establish himself as an NFL draft prospect.

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