Julian Fleming came to Ohio State as the No. 1 wide receiver in the 2020 recruiting class, and when he did, he carried in the kind of expectations that can weigh down even the best of prospects.
Ideal conditions can help a player meet expectations, but Fleming has never had that luxury. His freshman year was played during a pandemic when the Buckeyes’ season was stopped and started more than once. There are also happened to be three future first-round draft picks starting at receiver in front of him.
Even still, he managed to post seven receptions for 74 yards that year and started in the Big Ten Championship Game where he caught four passes for 53 yards.
In 2021, the Buckeyes lost one of those future first-rounders when Jameson Williams transferred to Alabama. Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave remained, and Fleming’s classmate Jaxon Smith-Njigba took over in the slot. Together, Wilson, Olave, and Smith-Njigba had a season for the ages. Fleming, meanwhile, battled a shoulder issue among other various ailments last year. He finished the season with 12 receptions for 86 yards and a touchdown, including a start in the Rose Bowl where he tallied a career-high five catches.
That’s 19 catches and two starts in two seasons for Fleming. Being the No. 1 receiver recruit in the nation, many have expected more. Fleming is one of those people, in fact, but receivers coach Brian Hartline is too smart to think he knows how quickly every receiver is going to develop.
“I don’t ever put expectations on things. You guys do that,” Hartline said recently. “You guys tell people how it’s supposed to go and what the path is supposed to be. Terry McLaurin didn’t have that issue. Jaxon’s got a different path. Chris Olave has his path. Everyone’s got a common goal. And everyone’s got different paths. Everyone understands that. We’re just staying on our path, and when we look up, we’re gonna be really happy at the end of the day.”
Ohio State has had a long line of talented receivers, and the number of them who starred as a freshman or sophomore is very small.
Just because every player’s path is different, however, that doesn’t mean they’re always all that unique. For any number of reasons, some players just need a couple of years before they’re meeting or exceeding expectations. There is nothing wrong with it and it is certainly not an indication of future performance.
And while some people may look at Fleming’s 19 catches over two seasons and want to dismiss him and anoint others instead, it’s important to note that Fleming’s pace is still ahead of a number of great Buckeye receivers over the years.
For instance, here’s a list of Ohio State receivers from the past with fewer than Fleming’s 19 receptions in their first two years on the team.
|Terry McLaurin||0 catches|
|Parris Campbell||0 catches|
|Johnnie Dixon||1 catch|
|Michael Thomas||3 catches|
|Terry Glenn||15 catches|
|Dee Miller||15 catches|
|Jameson Williams||15 catches|
|Brian Hartline||17 catches|
In fact, Fleming has has more receptions over his first two years than Terry McLaurin, Parris Campbell, and Johnnie Dixon all had after three seasons.
Sure, times and offensive styles change, which can impact production. But the larger point is that the first half of a career is just the beginning. The finish is what people will always remember.
“I think it’s just natural progression,” Hartline said. “I think he did a great job [in the spring]. He’s just a big, strong, fast athlete that’s just really evolving into a receiver. And he’s just done a great job with that. I think that there’s always things we’re going to keep enhancing and he knows where we need to enhance and get better. And I think he’s taking all the necessary steps and I’m really pleased with where he’s at.”
When you talk to those who get to see Fleming in practice, every single person will have a story to tell you about him. To a man, each of those people are excited for everyone else to see what they have been seeing all along.
“He’s amazing,” sophomore receiver Marvin Harrison said this spring. “He’s a freak athlete. He’s playing every position right now. Slot, outside, so we’re going to use him a lot, you know? He’s very versatile in what he can do. He’s a great blocker. Probably the best run blocker we have. He’s going to be a great asset to the team for sure.”
And when everybody does get to see it, won’t be “too soon” or “too late.”
Instead, it will be right on time for Julian Fleming.