Jim Roth has been the head football coach at Southern Columbia High School in Columbia County Pennsylvania for the past 36 seasons.
Over that time, Roth’s teams have won 87.1% of their games, as well as 10 state championships.
Located in Catawissa, Pennsylvania, which is a town of about 1,500 people, Southern Columbia is a small school, but that clearly hasn’t limited their successes.
This past season, for instance, the Tigers wrapped up their third-consecutive state title, each season marked with a perfect 16-0 record. Their state title game was a 74-7 win over Avonworth. Southern Columbia shutout eight of their 16 opponents this past season.
Roth considers his senior class a “once-in-a-career class,” especially at a place like Southern Columbia, which doesn’t necessarily churn out college prospects like some other elite programs.
This past senior class, however, has six players who were awarded collegiate scholarships — five in football and one in wrestling.
One of those five football players is Ohio State freshman wide receiver Julian Fleming, who was a 4-year standout for Roth at Southern Columbia.
The first time Roth saw Fleming play was in youth football. He stood out immediately. That continued in junior high.
That is why when Fleming finally got to high school, Roth brought him up to the varsity team as a freshman. He thought he would end up being pretty special, in part because he had never had anybody like Fleming to compare him to.
Once he hit the varsity scene, it didn’t take long for the colleges to notice Fleming either.
“I can remember sitting in staff meetings and telling our assistants that when colleges put this film in and start looking at it, he’s going to get some attention pretty quick, but I never expected him to get multiple offers as a freshman from power five schools, which basically is what happened and then it just took off from there,” Roth told The-Ozone.
“By the time he was a sophomore, he pretty much had his pick of schools and everybody across the country was recruiting him. And a lot of the schools that were not your top 20 schools, they weren’t even getting involved because they just assumed he would be going somewhere bigger.”
Roth was correct in his assessment, culminating with Fleming being ranked the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2020 class by ESPN.
From the time the offers began, Roth was concerned that his star receiver would begin to think he had made it. He was afraid that things would be seen as easy and therefore the work wouldn’t continue.
That never happened, however, as Fleming was self-motivated, as well as driven by the offers and the possibilities put in front of him. Even after committing to Ohio State in May before his senior year, Fleming went on to have his best season ever in his final go-round.
Heading into his senior year of high school, Fleming was benching 225 nearly 20 times. Only five wide receivers at this year's NFL Combine hit 20 or beyond.
— Tony Gerdeman (@TonyGerdeman) April 2, 2020
When asked where Julian Fleming could improve, Roth thought for a moment before giving a fairly stock answer for wide receivers.
“He can improve his route running because you can always improve it, especially coming out of high school,” he said. “But for high school kid, he does pretty well already. He’s been forced to because really for the better part of three seasons he’s always had to deal with double coverage and he’s still catching 70 balls for 20-some touchdowns.”
Roth later then described how he would watch Fleming running his routes, doing things that none of his coaches had ever taught him. Depending on the coverages, he would lure defenders in with some deceleration and then accelerate and leave them behind. Roth wasn’t even sure he should be doing it, but he checked with the college coaches who were recruiting Fleming and what they told him was both a relief and a surprise.
“They said that’s definitely a technique that is used on some routes against some coverages,” he explained. “It’s a high level kind of thing that is incorporated in route running and he was just doing it naturally. I mean, I didn’t teach it to him. We didn’t have a receivers coach teach it to him. But he kind of had a feel for doing that. He just started to incorporate that at some point.”
Putting that feel and work ethic to good use throughout his career, Fleming finished high school with 255 career receptions for 5,514 yards and 77 touchdowns. He was the Gatorade Player of the Year in the state twice.
“He’s a complete package as a player,” Roth said. “He’s got good size, he’s about 6-2, a little over 6-2. He’s got good strength and physicality and he has enough speed to get behind people. He can do a little bit of everything. He is an outstanding blocker.”
Roth then detailed the countless times one of his running backs had busted into the open field and Fleming would come tearing out of nowhere to be an escort or to pick off the closest tackler.
With two 1,000-yard rushers on the team last year, Fleming showcased his blocking skills regularly. It was one of the things that caught Ohio State’s eye as well. But that was all seemingly an added bonus because of the type of wide receiver he is.
“He’s big enough and physical enough to be a possession kind of guy and take the ball away from people. But yet he is fast enough to get behind them. So I don’t think he’s limited as a receiver. I think he can be used in different ways,” Roth said.
“The other thing I will say about him is he’s got great ball skills. And that’s something that I know is not always there, especially with younger receivers when they come into a college program, but his ability to track the ball down the field and go up and make plays on the ball, high point it, and just do all those things that they refer to as ball skills, that is not always easy for young guys. He’s very good at that. One-hand catches, he’s done a lot of that through his high school career.”
Seeing Julian Fleming do what he does every day didn’t get old for Roth, but because he hadn’t seen many players like him in his 36 years as a head coach, he was curious about just how good his player was.
After assisting at the Under Armour All-American Game this past January, however, that curiosity switched to confirmation. A week’s worth of practices and a game against some of the nation’s best defensive back prospects put Fleming to the test. It ended up being a test he aced every step of the way.
Roth was relieved, but not surprised. He has known Fleming for far too long to be surprised by anything he does anymore.
“I’ve never even had a coach ask me his 40 time. Not once, not one time. I’m not even sure what his 40 time is,” Roth said. “I just think he’s one of those guys, whatever his speed is, he’s gonna run faster on the field anyhow. But he finished second in the state in the 100 meters his junior year in track and field, and he’s always been a guy that I felt regardless of what the clock said, if you timed him, he’s always been a guy that is going to have better field speed because he’s just one of those that when he’s competing, he raises to that level. He’s gonna do what he needs to do.”