On a day when Ohio State set a school record with seven different receivers catching touchdown passes in a 54-21 win over UNLV, the Buckeye with the most receptions was one many fans had likely never heard of.
Walk-on sophomore WR C.J. Saunders had six catches for 102 yards, and made a lunging touchdown grab between two defenders that extended OSU’s lead to 44-7. That play was something he’ll never forget.
“That was unreal, the roar that I heard,” said Saunders.
The play called for Saunders to find an open area in the defense where quarterback Dwayne Haskins could get him the ball.
“It was a concept where the outside has the ability to go deep or hook it up and I have a work route so I can kind of do whatever I want in there,” said Saunders. “I saw the safeties go too high, so the middle was open. I just kind of kept it skinny and Dwayne threw an amazing ball.”
It was a shocking explosion from a receiver who had just one career catch for 14 yards coming into the week, but it was even more remarkable because of the unusual road he traveled to even get a chance to wear the scarlet and gray.
Saunders was a three-sport star at Dublin Coffman High School, but didn’t receive any scholarship offers to continue his career in college.
“A couple D-3s, but no division one offers or anything,” said Saunders. “I thought I kind of was done with it, honestly, until freshman year. And then I was talking to my parents and my high school coaches and said ‘I miss it’ and then they were able to hook me up with (former OSU defensive coordinator Luke) Fickell.”
“My high school coach, Mark Crabtree, was talking to coach Fickell in the fall of 2015 and he said some good things about me,” Saunders said. “Coach Fickell hit me up, he sent me a text and said ‘we’d like you to come out and try to be a part of the team.'”
Saunders started his Buckeye career at cornerback before switching to wide receiver this spring.
“They said they needed me for a numbers situation at corner, so I went to that every day and tried to help whoever I could. Then when I got switched to receiver, that’s what I played in high school so I was really excited about that, just to be able to do something I know how to do.”
While Saunders certainly looked like he knew how to play wide receiver on Saturday, OSU head coach Urban Meyer said there’s still a lot of work to do before he can become a consistent contributor.
“He’s actually a good player,” Meyer said. “His body, I wish we could do something to get him a little stronger and more strength, because he’s a really good player, just not very big. (OSU strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marriotti) is working hard at that.”
Saunders is working hard not only in the weight room, but also at the dinner table. He said he’s eating 4,000 calories every day as part of his quest to get bigger and stronger.
“Just do whatever Coach Mick says, the weight staff,” said Saunders. “Eat extra food, eat extra calories, that’s the biggest thing.”
Meyer said after the game that Saunders couldn’t be “a hood ornament” and emphasized the need for him to grow in order to improve his blocking.
“He’s definitely right,” said Saunders. “I’ve got to get a little bit stronger just so I can continue to help the run game. Because that’s a big thing – the receivers at Ohio State are the best blocking receivers in the nation, so I’ve got to be like that standard.”
While Saunders may still have a lot to improve on, he already has a big supporter in Haskins.
“I’ve loved C.J. ever since spring ball,” Haskins said. “He’s my H(-back) every time we go to practice. He’s just a baller, whether he’s a little guy or short or whatever. He just finds a way to get open.”