Ohio State has taken pride in the depth of its ‘Zone 6’ wide receiver unit and the significant number of Buckeyes that have been able to rotate there over the last few years. One player who earned surprising playing time last year was walk-on junior H-back C.J. Saunders.
Saunders, who began his Ohio State career as a cornerback, caught 17 passes for 221 yards in 2017. Included in that was six-catch outing for 102 yards and a touchdown against UNLV.
Even though he saw time here and there, Saunders was told by his coaches that he needed to get stronger and bigger in order to earn more playing time in the future. Saunders committed to developing his body in the offseason and is currently acquiring the strength and weight he will need in order to have a more significant role for the Buckeyes this season.
“He had to get bigger, he did get bigger. He had to get stronger, he got stronger,” wide receivers coach Zach Smith said. “Now he’s got to block well enough to play consistently. Last year he was a role player. He was good in the throw game, but he 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.”
Saunders spent enough time in the weight room this offseason to gain around 10 pounds. He said he is thankful for Mickey Marotti’s weight staff and the work they invested in him.
“They saw what they thought I could be, and I obviously thought so, but I needed to get stronger and I needed to put weight on,” Saunders said. “They worked hard with the nutrition staff and we kind of put a real plan together to take that step and actually get to an upper-180 weight level instead of just being at the high 170s, because that’s a big difference.
“I think it was a great offseason and I’m super thankful for the time that the coaches invested into me.”
A major part of being able to gain the weight was through diet and a complete lifestyle change. It wasn’t all just in the weight room.
“For me it was eating consistently and eating six or seven meals a day, every two or three hours to keep food in my system,” he said. “I thought it was just you could eat the three meals a day, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and like I gotta lift, I just gotta keep working hard. But you gotta invest your lifestyle to it. The coaches really pushed that lifestyle on me, saying if you can do this, you can be this good.”
But even though Saunders has gotten stronger and gained weight, the Buckeyes are still returning every member of Zone 6. He is competing to earn more playing time in the receiver rotation and the competition won’t be easy. Regardless, Saunders is excited to figure out where he will fit in this season.
“Yeah we’re loaded, I’m super excited,” he said. “You kind of just figure that out through spring ball. You see where, what packages you can play in, what stuff Parris [Campbell] is good at, what stuff I’m good at, K.J. [Hill] , what stuff he can do. I think we all complement each other, we’ve been working a lot this offseason to just take the next step to make those big plays in every game.”
Saunders’ development isn’t finished yet, however. The more strength and weight he puts on this spring, the better he will position himself for playing time this year. Smith said he wants Saunders to gain another eight or 10 pounds before the season, but he already has put himself in the position to contribute.
“You’re going to play the best 11. So if he’s one of the best 11, he’s going to be on the field,” Smith said.
When asked about his personal goals for the 2018 season, Saunders said he just wants to help the team and contribute however he can.
“For myself, just make all the plays that I’m given,” he said. “I didn’t really set like a yardage thing, a touchdown goal or anything like that. Just however I can help the team, the offense, special teams, whatever it is.”