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Football: Local walk-on C.J. Saunders’ unconventional path to Ohio State wide receiver

Ohio State junior wide receiver C.J. Saunders (80) catches a pass in the fourth quarter of the Ohio State-UNLV game on Sep. 23. Ohio State won 54- 21. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

The only other time wide receiver C.J. Saunders received a flurry of messages on his phone as a member of the Ohio State football team was when he intercepted a pass as a scout team cornerback during last season’s fall camp, which was featured in a video Ohio State broadcasted on social media.

Saturday, the walk-on from nearby Dublin Coffman High School garnered greater notice from friends and family with his first collegiate touchdown against UNLV.

Saunders, who began his career as a cornerback his freshman season before making the switch to wide receiver this year, caught a 28-yard touchdown strike from redshirt freshman quarterback Dwayne Haskins with 1:02 remaining in the second quarter to push the Ohio State lead to 44-7. He also led Ohio State receivers with six receptions for 102 yards.

“Unreal feeling,” Saunders said. “When I got in the end zone, I kind of wanted to make sure I was in that red and then I just heard the screams from my teammates and the fans and I knew it was a touchdown. That was unreal, the roar I heard.”

As insignificant as the score might have been in the outcome of the game, it was anything but insignificant for a player who had no Division I scholarship offers in high school.

Saunders, a junior academically but a sophomore athletically, was a three-sport athlete in high school, playing on varsity for the basketball and baseball teams for three years and playing varsity football for two. His father, Tim Saunders, is entering his 26th season as the head coach of the Dublin Coffman baseball team and coached his son through high school. He said C.J.’s best sport was baseball, but was most passionate about basketball.

His junior year, C.J. decided to play varsity football and quickly became one of the more talented receivers in the area. His senior year, he caught 39 passes for 522 yards with six touchdowns and was named to his conference’s second team, after helping the Coffman Shamrocks to an unbeaten regular season and division title.

In basketball, he was named the Ohio Capital Conference-Central player of the year. He also made first-team all-conference in baseball and was one of three players in the country to win a Rawlings High School Gold Glove award in the outfield. He had three Division II offers from Ashland, Indiana Tech and Tiffin for basketball, but decided he wanted to go to a larger school.

Growing up an Ohio State fan, his father said C.J.’s academic future was decided when Ohio State and head coach Urban Meyer won the 2014 national championship.

“After that he said, ‘I’m going to go to Ohio State to be a student,’” Tim Saunders said.

Once C.J. made that decision, his father called Ohio State baseball head coach Greg Beals, who offered C.J. a preferred walk-on spot on the 2016 team. However, once C.J. enrolled in Fall 2015 in the Fisher College of Business as an accounting major, he elected not to try out for the baseball team because he told his father he wasn’t in love with the sport and wanted to join a fraternity on campus, for which he feared baseball would limit his availability.

A month later, C.J. felt like he made a mistake. He missed playing competitive sports. So, he met again with Beals and had a spot reserved for him on the 2017 baseball roster.

That was until former Ohio State linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell approached his former teammate at DeSales High School, Dublin Coffman football head coach Mark Crabtree, in December 2015 in search of potential walk-ons.

Crabtree directed Fickell to his former wideout, C.J.

“I thought I was kind of done with [football] honestly, until freshman year,” C.J. said after Saturday’s game. “I was talking with my parents and my high school coach and said, ‘I miss it.’ They were able to hook me up with Coach Fickell.”

Fickell texted C.J. and told him the team was looking for cornerbacks and offered him an opportunity to try out for the team and earn a spot as a walk-on. After the two met, C.J. was working out the next day. He was 5-foot-10, 155 pounds.

“He was probably bottom of the bottom and I always thought they have four-, five-star guys galore down here and you’re a zero-star guy,” Tim said. “I’m glad you’re playing, I think you’ll have a great experience, I hope you stick with it. But personally — I never told him this — but I never thought he’d see the field. He keeps surprising us.”

Ohio State junior wide receiver C.J. Saunders (80) attempts to catch a pass in the fourth quarter of the Ohio State- UNLV game on Sep. 23. Ohio State won 54- 21. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

C.J. was not familiar with the cornerback position; he even said he wasn’t very good. When he was practicing on the scout team as a walk-on in spring 2016, Tim said C.J. thought he would probably be done after the spring game.

But C.J. saw more time than expected. Tim estimated C.J. saw roughly 18 snaps in the spring game, which readjusted his initial timeline with the Ohio State football program. C.J. told his family that he’d give it a full year and see where that took him.

After that first year, he began to make unprecedented strides in 2017 fall camp. He made the switch to his more natural position at receiver. He was elevated from playing strictly with the scout team. Then, he was named to the 70-man roster that traveled to Indiana for the first game of the season.

His parents, Tim and Janie, made the trip to Bloomington, Indiana, where they first met when Tim was an assistant coach with Hoosiers baseball team in 1986 and 1987 while Janie was an All-American swimmer for Indiana.

“Football was never on the radar when [C.J.] went to Ohio State. He knew of all things, football would be the hardest,” Tim said. “He’s not only getting chances, but he’s taking advantage of them.”

Ohio State junior wide receiver C.J. Saunders (80) prepares to run a play in the fourth quarter of the Ohio State- UNLV game on Sep. 23. Ohio State won 54- 21. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

When C.J. scored his first touchdown as an Ohio State Buckeye Saturday, Tim, Janie, his sister, Shelby, and a few other family members were sitting in section 21AA with other players’ parents. Tim said they weren’t looking for a quick embrace from C.J. Instead, they accepted just meeting with him atop the ramp of the team tunnel after the game. After all, he’s a coach’s son who stays in the moment, and that’s how the family prefers it, Tim said.

“[C.J. is] just a hard-working dude, like a dude that is going out there every day and tries to get a little better, it doesn’t matter what it is,” said quarterback and three-time captain J.T. Barrett. “Those are guys that play at places like this ‘cause they want to be great, and I think that he has that desire and passion to do it.”

For C.J. to see the field substantially in times when the game hasn’t been decided, he needs to get stronger, head coach Urban Meyer said. At 176 pounds, he’s one of the lightest receivers on the roster. C.J. said that’s one of his top goals moving forward, as well as becoming a better blocker.

“We’ve had trouble before with the smaller guys. They can’t play,” Meyer said. “And so his issue is can he get strong enough to play at this level? Because he’s got the shake. He’s got the hands. He’s got the courage. He’s got the go-to, will-to. But gotta get stronger.”

Even as a member of the football team, C.J. was able to join a fraternity on campus, Sigma Chi. His unusual path to becoming a contributor for the Buckeyes has been somewhat of an inspiration for his fraternity brothers, Tim said. And C.J. still makes time for his family, coming home once every two weeks to hit in the batting cages and field fly balls with his dad.

The Saunders know moments like Saturday’s game will likely be few and far between for C.J. in his career. Yet, they’re enjoying the journey along with C.J. and plan on making trips to the games at Nebraska and Iowa if he continues to make the travel roster.

Tim said his son is “a guy worth rooting for.” Saturday’s performance is driving C.J. toward a greater role than just an inspiration.

“Now that it’s happened, you kind of want more,” he said.

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