No one player was ever going to replace Parris Campbell’s impact in Ohio State’s offense.
For one, that kind of speed isn’t just something a coach can go grab off of a rack. For two, every player is different and if they’re talented enough, they have their own particular spin to put on their respective offense or defense.
For instance, Buckeye head coach Ryan Day isn’t going to ask KJ Hill to become Parris Campbell because KJ Hill is plenty good just being himself.
That all being said, Campbell must be replaced this season, and so the process of doing so went on throughout the spring for the Buckeyes.
As of now, replacing Campbell’s snaps in the offense at H-back with Hill will go to fifth-year senior CJ Saunders and/or Jaelen Gill.
And based on the skill levels of both players, that “and/or” might not need an “or” in it.
Saunders has played plenty, but did see his production decline last season because of the effectiveness of Hill and Campbell. Gill, meanwhile, saw action in two games last season and is still putting the finishing touches on his conversion to receiver.
As such, both Hill and Saunders have helped Gill along the way.
“I just help him out all the time because I was in his shoes before and I just want to help, and for him to soak up everything,” Hill said. “That’s the good thing about him, he wants to soak up everything and learn. And he’s willing to learn.”
Saunders, on the other hand, is a bit different because he already knows so much. Even though he hasn’t had as much playing time as Hill, he is able to be put into any situation and succeed.
“CJ is different,” Hill said. “He’s got the quickness in him. I feel like his route running is great. CJ, you’ve just got to see him play to explain his game. You’ve just got to see it.”
“CJ Saunders does a phenomenal job and to me, he is a guy that I use as an example a lot,” echoed OSU receivers coach Brian Hartline. “Whether it be taking tests in our room, whether it be overall effort in our room, he does a great job. It’s really hard for me to find a bad clip on film.”
Saunders has fans all over the Ohio State football team, but a person doesn’t have to look too hard to find a fan or two of Jaelen Gill as well.
“He’s a really explosive player,” Saunders said of Gill. “If he gets the ball in his hands, he has a shiftiness to him that he can move side to side really well and make people miss. He’s getting a lot better with his hands, which is really impressive and a big part of receiver play. His routes, being able to clear guys and get into his routes, so I’m really impressed with how far he’s come in that area of his game.”
The H-back position — like the other two receiver positions in Ohio State’s offense — has been manned by a pair of players who split reps. It’s been that way for years, going back even to 2013 when freshman Dontre Wilson and senior Philly Brown were both playing the position.
Each year, the two H-backs have complemented each other fairly well, be it Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall, Curtis Samuel and Braxton Miller, or the past two years with Campbell and Hill.
Now, Saunders and Gill are competing to be the guy who provides that kind of complement to Hill.
As that competition took place this spring — and will continue in the fall — it became pretty obvious that both players will see the field this season, and instead of the Buckeye H-backs being a two-man game, we could very well see a rotation of three at times.
Even with that competition looming over them, the only job Gill and Saunders had this spring was to get better. Which they did, through each other.
“I wouldn’t even use the word ‘competition.’ It’s more just helping each other get better,” Saunders said. “I think I have a lot that I can give to him. He’s a great athlete. He played running back in high school, so he’s still trying to learn receiver. How can I help him become the best receiver that he can be? And he’s doing the same thing pushing me. I think all of the Hs and positions in general work together, the Zs and the Xs, to help each other become better players. And that’s what we’re all focused on.”
I would not sleep on CJ Saunders at the next level. He could sign as a free agent for someone like the Patriots and stick as a Wes Welker type receiver. Teams like that place a huge emphasis on receivers who can run crisp routes, are quick, and very smart in making adjustments in synch with their QB can find a place for him on their roster.
Love stories like Saunders’. Walk on who earns a place as a valuable contributor. Hope he has a senior year to remember even among a pretty crowded position at H.
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