COLUMBUS — C.J. Saunders is one of the best leaders in the Ohio State locker room.
His well-documented rise as one of the loudest voices in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center is what he’s known for best. The former walk-on wide receiver became a captain last season, but he could never be healthy enough to participate in a game.
So he led from the sideline.
But now that he’s healthy and ready for a sixth year of eligibility if it’s approved, Saunders can do so much more for the Ohio State offense.
“Oh yeah, C.J. Saunders does a phenomenal job,” Ohio State wide receivers coach Brian Hartline said last offseason. “To me, he’s a guy that I use as an example a lot — whether it be taking tests in our room, whether it’s overall effort in our room, he does a great job and that makes it really hard for me to find a bad rep on film. It’s really hard for me to find lack of effort on a test.
“It’s not like I’m trying to put him on a pedestal … but our expectation is trying to be different, trying to be great. I can’t find a half-speed rep on film of C.J. Saunders. It’s impossible. He’s doing a great job of leading the room by example.”
Last season, leading by example was no longer an option. And it may not be an option again this season if the Buckeyes don’t receive a favorable ruling from the NCAA about Saunders’ eligibility.
But if he’s back for another year, Saunders could prove to be a valuable weapon for Justin Fields and Ryan Day.
“We’re just waiting to hear about being eligible in his sixth year,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said earlier this offseason. “And we’ll wait to hear back from the NCAA. … [Slot receiver] is a transition spot for us. Last year we used some two tight end stuff to kind of supplement K.J. Hill a little bit. But we’re hoping to get C.J. Saunders back.”
Saunders has the work ethic to make plays. And he certainly has the skills necessary to burst into a prominent role for the Buckeyes this season. That was shown in 2017, when he had six catches for 102 yards and a touchdown against UNLV. He was supposed to do more of that last season before his injury.
With a second-year quarterback and plenty of openings at key wide receiver spots, Saunders could be in the perfect situation.
It won’t be easy. Saunders will be competing for playing time in a room loaded with talent.
But nothing C.J. Saunders has done at Ohio State has been easy. He went from walk-on to team captain, then sustained an injury and is now stating his case to the NCAA for one more shot with the Buckeyes.
He’s ready to prove he can do more than just lead.