The discussion around leadership on the Ohio State football team often involves the names of four- and five-star recruits, future NFL players and record-setting performers such as Chase Young, K.J. Hill and J.K. Dobbins.
While redshirt senior wide receiver C.J. Saunders shares neither the litany of on-field accomplishments nor the recruiting pedigree of his elite teammates, the former walk-on didn’t need them to be voted team captain Monday.
Saunders has just one touchdown and 294 receiving yards in his past three seasons with the Buckeyes, but his persistent attitude and leadership have earned him a position designated to only seven players on an 110-man roster.
“Nobody ever expected him to become the guy he is now,” senior safety and fellow captain Jordan Fuller said. “Guys just respect him so much because of his work ethic and just how he approaches the game.”
Saunders hails from Dublin, Ohio, where he was a successful multisport athlete, racking up all-conference and all-district honors in baseball, football and basketball.
However, Saunders was not recruited by the Buckeyes, or any Division I program for that matter.
Though he played receiver in high school, Saunders was able to walk onto the scout team as a cornerback in winter 2016.
His time in the defensive backs room is when Saunders developed a relationship with Fuller, who said he “smiled a little extra” when he saw that his former stablemate was voted captain.
Saunders said it wasn’t until he switched back to his natural position at wide receiver that he began to feel like he belonged on the team or had potential to play. His commitment paid off, as Saunders earned a scholarship in spring 2017, following a season in which he appeared in just one game.
“Once you get to a place like Ohio State, everybody’s good, so it doesn’t matter if you came from nothing or came from everything,” Saunders said. “You got to prove it every day.”
His first year on scholarship saw a marked uptick in playing time and production for Saunders, who caught 17 passes for 221 yards on the year and hauled in a touchdown against UNLV.
Day called the full-circle journey a “lifelong dream” of Saunders, though he said becoming a team captain was not his biggest goal.
“It wasn’t a surprise,” Saunders said. “I think the way that my career has progressed and how I’ve gotten to build relationships with my teammates — it’s something that I’ve strived for.”
This past season Saunders was given additional responsibilities in occasional punt and kick returns, which may be expanded upon in the upcoming year. Saunders said he and first-year special teams coordinator Matt Barnes have been working on a role for him in the offseason.
Having served in all three facets of the game for the Buckeyes, it comes as little surprise that even teammates on the defensive side of the ball admire the exemplary conduct that Saunders exhibits.
Fuller called Young the most vocal leader on the team, but Young spoke of Saunders when asked about leadership on the Buckeyes.
“A guy who really shows up and does it right every day all the time — never slips up — is C.J.,” Young said.
Junior linebacker Tuf Borland and senior defensive end Jonathon Cooper round out the seven Ohio State captains, which means Saunders is not just the only walk-on with captain status, but he is also the only non-starter.
But Saunders said as long as he “sticks to the fight,” the results will be seen in the end.
“Just coming in every day and going to work, just putting your head down, that’s what it was,” he said. “Day after day, brick after brick, just going to work and you see it start to pay off in times like this.”