Ohio State’s Saunders earns respect from teammates

Former walk-on one of seven captains for Buckeyes

C.J. Saunders realized he had a chance to be more than a walk-on at Ohio State when he moved from cornerback to wide receiver in the spring of 2017.

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“That’s when I thought I had a chance to play here,” Saunders said last week. “I had belief in my ability. I had a lot of work to do. But there was a chance. This could be real.”

Every day, Saunders said he put his head down and began laying the foundation of his career brick by brick. He saw it pay off that fall when he caught six passes for 102 yards and scored a touchdown against UNLV.

That remains the best performance of his career, and although he has not returned to the end zone, Saunders has turned into a leader. His teammates recognized that by voting for him to be a captain, and he was one of seven Ohio State Buckeyes to receive that honor in 2019.

“I think it’s unbelievable,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “You can tell that these guys respect hard work. They respect and really give a lot of credit to the way he’s gone about his work every day, the way he handles himself, his character. C.J. hasn’t played a whole bunch around here. What matters is how he works in the weight room, how he practices, the way he handles himself off the field, the classroom.”

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Saunders earned a scholarship in 2017, and he's not the first former walk-on to earn a captain's role. He referenced former linebacker Joe Burger, who was a captain in 2016, Saunders' first with the program.

“Guys like him showed me that is possible,” Saunders said. “I didn’t get recruited. Even a walk-on or under-recruited guy, it doesn’t matter once you get into these doors. Ohio State is all about, ‘How do you treat your teammates, your coaches, your family?’ and ‘What do you do between the lines?’ That’s what it’s all about. It’s a big honor, and I’m proud to pass that on to other walk-ons.”

Saunders caught 10 passes for 73 yards last season. There wasn’t much room for him to earn playing time in a deep and experienced group that included Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin, who were both drafted, and Johnnie Dixon, who signed as a free agent with the Houston Texans.

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It could be a different story this season. The Buckeyes lost those three veterans, who ranked among their four leading receivers, plus running back Mike Weber, who caught 21 passes. They return their second-leading receiver, K.J. Hill, plus Austin Mack and Binjimen Victor.

Day said Saunders will back up Hill at the hybrid back position.

“He’s had a good camp,” Day said. “A little bit of a situational guy. He’s going to help us on special teams, help us in the pass game a bunch. But he’s tough. He’s got really great short area quickness, good hands. Glad we got him.”

How much Saunders factors into the passing game could depend on his relationship with the new starting quarterback, Justin Fields. Saunders said Fields has “grown a ton” since arriving at Ohio State last winter, making progress in each phase of the offseason and in preseason camp.

“He’s one heck of an athlete,” Saunders said. “I think he’ll be able to extend a lot of plays. He might get flushed out and make something happen with his feet. That’s going to be a huge benefit to our team. As a leader, he’s just taking control of the offense. When you get more comfortable with the O line and receivers, everything starts to become easier. I think I’ve seen that just catching balls from him. He’s starting to know when to put touch on certain passes, where we break off certain routes. That’s been awesome.”


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