COLUMBUS, Ohio — Even at a position loaded with touted recruits, the most intriguing weapon at wide receiver might be one who walked on to the Ohio State roster.
For a unit with so many proven contributors in the clutch, the guy who has mainly been limited to mop-up duty is now fighting for those reps.
And for anybody who has questioned the size of C.J. Saunders — well, he’s still working on that, but he’s already packed on nearly 10 pounds this offseason.
Maybe the senior wideout isn’t going to suddenly become a breakout, national superstar. Odds are that he won’t even become a starter. But Saunders has shown the kind of potential that should have the Buckeyes thinking about expanding their receiver rotation, and another solid spring should put him in line for a heavier workload by the fall.
“I always felt like I could play with these guys,” Saunders said. “But it was just really cool [last year] to actually see it happen. A lot of guys don’t get that chance, but I was fortunate enough to get that opportunity to get out on the field and show what I could do in front of a live audience, TV game, whatever it is. That was just really special.
“But it was true what coach [Urban Meyer] said. I needed to get more explosive, needed to be able to help in the run game, and I can already feel that just after the first couple practices. I’m up in weight, and I feel stronger, faster.”
The strength will be what Ohio State focuses on as it tries to find the best way to use Saunders moving forward, although it would never complain about anybody adding a little bit more speed to the skill set.
The main concern for the Buckeyes has been whether the 5-foot-10, now 185-pound Saunders could hold up as a blocker on the perimeter for the run game, a non-negotiable part of the requirements for playing time at wide receiver. And assuming the commitment to eating six meals a day to bulk up his frame eases those doubts, Ohio State is well aware of what he could provide as a target working out of the slot for the passing attack.
“Hands down, C.J. is definitely one of our elite receivers,” senior Parris Campbell said. “Honestly, I think with some of the veterans here, we kind of learn from C.J. just because he brings something different to the table. His game is so much different because he’s a small, crafty guy. He’s very efficient in his movements.
“Hands down, I think he should be in the rotation for sure.”
Just outside of it a year ago, Saunders still found enough action and had built up enough credibility with the quarterbacks to haul in 17 catches for 221 yards. He even threatened to steal the show in a blowout win over UNLV, topping the 100-yard mark on 6 catches with a touchdown that offered the first real, public glimpse at what he might provide in the slot.
Saunders is an efficient route-runner, quick in and out of his breaks with no wasted motion. He has strong hands and can be counted on to make tough catches. He’s also fearless and confident, and the entire package is why Ohio State has pushed him so hard to take the next step physically so he can contribute when it really counts.
“C.J. was that utility guy last year,” wide receivers coach Zach Smith said. “He was the seventh receiver, and he played some meaningful snaps. How many meaningful snaps he plays will be based on his performance. He had to get bigger; he did get bigger. He had to get stronger; he got stronger. Now he’s got to block well to play consistently.
“Last year he was a role player, good in the throw game but wasn’t great in the run game. We’ve got to see improvement, and I think so far he’s done a good job with that.”
How much action Saunders will see, though, won’t be solely up to him.
All of Ohio State’s draft-eligible wide receivers elected to return for another season with the program. So, all of those six players ahead of him last year are back and in position to build off their own offseason developments — plus another batch of heralded signees is on the way this summer looking to make an impact.
But Saunders has certainly earned his spot in the Zone 6 mix. And Ohio State figures to only benefit by finding a way to use him more often.
“We’re loaded,” Saunders said. “I’m super excited, but I think you just figure that all out through spring ball. What packages you can play in, what stuff everybody is good at. I think we all complement each other.
“We’ve all been working to take that next step and trying to make those big plays, making every game like we did Penn State with huge plays left and right.”
For the record, Saunders contributed a big play in that epic comeback victory last season, and it obviously didn’t come in garbage time.
Mark it down: There will be more to come.