Southern Columbia head coach Jim Roth can tell you the first time he saw Julian Fleming, and it happened long before Fleming ever suited up for him in high school.
Situated in Catawissa, Pennsylvania, which is a rural community of about 1,500 people located on the banks of the Susquehanna River, Fleming caught Roth’s eye even before junior high.
Prior to being ESPN’s No. 1 overall recruit in the 2020 recruiting class and a 5-star signee for Ohio State head coach Ryan Day, Fleming was also pretty good way back at the youth level.
Not realizing he would be doing some advance scouting, that’s where Roth — who has now won 10 state championships at Southern Columbia — first saw Fleming stand out. He was head and shoulders above everyone else in the league, hips and ankles too.
Fleming eventually got to junior high and he continued his tear. Like a Single-A baseball player who hits .380 at each stop, he progressed and thrived at each successive level.
It was in junior high where Roth began thinking that Fleming could be something special. The only problem was that in his 30 years he had never coached anybody who possessed Fleming’s physical gifts and overall talent, so he had nothing to compare him to in terms of his potential.
Surprising nobody in the community, Roth put Fleming on the varsity team as a freshman. Soon after, the first college offers began rolling in.
By the time his four years were done, Fleming finished with 255 receptions for 5,514 yards receiving, scoring 77 touchdowns in his high school career, and was twice named the Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Pennsylvania.
“He was a pretty remarkable athlete through his high school career from the time that I started to deal with him at the junior high level until he graduated,” Roth told Buckeye Scoop. “He just matured so much and really handled the whole situation well. He started to get offers after his freshman year.
“And at that point, I was concerned about how that was going to go, how it would affect him and so forth. And he handled it the right way, instead of getting a big head and thinking that he kind of had it made and doesn’t really have to work that hard because he’s a division one athlete. And that happens to a lot of kids, especially if they start getting offers early like that.”
Rather than being satisfied by the early attention, Roth saw it become a motivator. Each new letter from a school gave Fleming a push forward. They were checkpoints rather than finish lines.
Roth’s message to Fleming from the beginning was that the offers only meant he would have an opportunity at a school. It said nothing about what he would do once he got there. That part would be up to Fleming.
Now at Ohio State, the former 5-star wide receiver echoed that same sentiment when talking to the media back in February.
“Well, in high school expectations were high. And obviously my expectations for myself were higher than everybody else’s, so it was just continuing to be the best version of myself,” Fleming said.
“And coming in here now, I’m not rated anything. I’m not any stars. I’m a freshman. I know how to stay looking to earn a position, so it’s a completely different thing from high school because those rankings go out the door very quick.”
Ohio State’s depth chart lists name and positions. It says nothing about recruiting rankings. Fleming’s five stars and a buck fifty will get him a nice cold Coca-Cola from the UDF.
But Julian Fleming isn’t the type to look back at where he’s been because he’s too focused on where he’s going.
“You have to earn your whole way up, nothing’s given you,” he said. “I mean you come to college and you think you’re the cream of the crop, the best one. You come to one of the top colleges in the country, you’re going to get put in your place real quick.
“So high school, yeah, sure I was at the top. I came here, I’m at the bottom. And it’s just going to be gradually improving and working my way up to hopefully get back to the top.”
Roth has seen that work ethic first hand. From offers as a freshman, to even more attention as a sophomore, to back-to-back Player of the Year awards as a junior and senior, nothing slowed him down. In fact, it only sped him up.
“He just became motivated with it and worked hard,” Roth said. “I mean, he’s a guy that is a wide receiver and going into his senior year in high school was benching 225 almost 20 times. Most of the wide receivers who are at the combine aren’t lifting near that much weight.
“And that’s just one example of the way he works in the weight room and just didn’t sit back and become complacent because of all the attention and the offers and all the other accolades that he got along the way. So he’s really handled it well.”
Fleming enrolled early at Ohio State and like everyone else in college football, his spring practice was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan was to gain as much experience in the winter and spring as he could, and then put that to good use once the real competition began in the fall.
With the players dispersed all over the country, it will be the determined and the self-motivated who return with an extra gear.
And according to Roth, that very much describes his former receiver.
“I think that’s his nature now,” he said. “He’s developed that attitude that he’s gonna do what he needs to do to be successful at that level. It’s impressive because it’s not a chip-on-the-shoulder type of thing. He hasn’t had to prove anything to anybody on the outside because he’s received so many awards.”
“I think he realizes that all that stuff is great, but if he wants to excel at Ohio State and in the Big Ten and then maybe have an opportunity at the next level beyond college, that you’ve got to continue to work, you’ve got to continue to get better. And he can’t become complacent about things. He realizes that and he’s self-motivated, and that’s the greatest attribute to have if you’re going to be a big-time athlete.”