Fleming Becomes a Buckeye.
By: Dave Fegley | PIAA District IV | May 31, 2019
By: Dave Fegley | PIAA District IV | May 31, 2019
It was a decision that took a lot of thought and time, but Southern Columbia’s Julian Fleming has made up his mind. The talented junior decided that Ohio State University was where he wanted to be. “It was an at-home feeling with the players and staff,” said Fleming. Ranked as the No. 4 overall recruit in the class of 2020, according to ESPN, Southern Columbia’s #4 will transform from the Southern Columbia black and gold to the Ohio State scarlet and grey in less than a year’s time. Not only is Fleming regarded as hands-down the top ranked wide receiver in the country, he is being compared to what some of the NFL greats looked like during their high school days including former Buckeye Michael Thomas who has turned into a Pro Bowl player for the New Orleans Saints. At this point though the Elysburg-native isn’t in the least bit focused on anything except for finishing strong with the Tigers. “Yeah, I’m excited to have all the stress lifted and just focus on the upcoming season,” he said.
Fleming’s commitment to Ohio State labels him as the university’s highest rated wide receiver recruit of all-time. “That doesn’t matter. Winning championships is what matters and getting the best education. On the field, the goal is to win games and the focus is on the team,” Fleming said. With all of the greats to come through the Buckeye program, including Hall of Famer Cris Carter and Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes, it goes to show what Fleming has been able to prove at the national level during his high school career. During the his undefeated junior season, the three-sport star caught 78 passes for 1,524 yards and 22 touchdowns. He also returned three interceptions for scores as well as a punt.
Fleming’s pledge to join the Buckeyes marks the first ever 5-star commitment for their newest head coach Ryan Day. “You see that every wide receiver can impact the game, and it is like family there. The whole staff, they show that they really care and love the players,” said Julian. Day was handed the keys to run the show in Columbus following Ohio State’s 2018 Rose Bowl win when Urban Meyer decided to retire. Day was named the interim coach during a three-game Meyer suspension earlier in the season. The former Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s coach guided the Buckeyes to a 3-0 record during Meyer’s absence. “It shows his ability to step into an unknown position and still be successful,” Fleming said. Day played a large role in helping develop Chip Kelly’s offensive scheme at New Hampshire that led to Kelly’s Oregon program revolutionizing the high-tempo spread offense that has grown all around the country.
The man that arguably had the largest influence in bringing the nation’s most sought-after wide receiver to Columbus, is Buckeye wide receiver coach Brian Hartline. “He is a great guy with NFL ties, and he’s knowledgeable with the game,” said the Southern Columbia product. Hartline had an outstanding collegiate career at Ohio State and went on to have a productive NFL stint. His professional career spanned seven years including the first six as a member of the Miami Dolphins where he had a stretch of two consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. His interest in Fleming was evident around the community as he attended the 2018 PIAA Football State Championship game as well as some of Fleming’s basketball games and track events.
In 2018, Hartline’s first year working with the OSU receivers, all of the Buckeye program’s single-season receiving records were broken. The receiving corps that was led by Parris Campbell, K.J. Hill, Johnnie Dixon, and Terry McLaurin, set a new Ohio State record for yards, receptions, and touchdowns while catching passes from first-round draft pick Dwayne Haskins. “Julian just needs to do what he’s been doing his whole life. He wins and shows his talent doing it. He’s competitive and has that drive that will make him a star on a team he will play for,” said his star teammate Gaige Garcia.
With the core of the record-breaking receiving group graduating from the Ohio State program, and their top returner being a senior this upcoming season, a window could open for Fleming to potentially step in and make an immediate impact in 2020. “I am coming in to try and take a spot. Red-shirting isn’t what I want to do, but whatever it takes to be successful,” stated Julian. In Fleming’s high school career thus far he has improved his stats in all the major receiving categories each year.
The Buckeyes made another national splash earlier this year by winning the recruiting battle over transfer quarterback Justin Fields. The gifted freshman quarterback left Georgia after the fall semester to enroll at Ohio State. “I talk to Justin daily. I’ve had a relationship with him since he was at Georgia,” Fleming said. Fields was rated just above Clemson’s star quarterback Trevor Lawrence as the top recruit in the country for the class of 2018. With Fields entering 2019 as a red-shirt freshman, that gives Fleming the opportunity to play alongside of him.
The university that could have the most nightmares about Fleming over the next few years is the one in his home state. “It will just be a regular game with some fans that may not like me too much,” said Fleming. Penn State not only lost out on the top prospect from PA, but salt is added to the wound by losing him to a rival school in their conference. To add even more pain, Fields was at one point a Penn State commit before he decommitted to head down to Georgia. Now with those two teaming up, the dreadful thought of Fleming catching touchdown passes from Fields in Beaver Stadium during a Big 10 showdown could be a reality for the PSU fans at Happy Valley.
Fleming’s decision wasn’t easy at first. The 6-2 receiver began getting offers from the top programs in the country, starting with Michigan, in March of his freshman year. With the calls continuing to roll in, it put the 215-pounder in the national spotlight for the remainder of his high school career. The journey, which was filled with lots of traveling and prospect camps, allowed him to weigh the pros and cons to narrow down his list. Fleming’s decision in April of picking his top five schools that included Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Penn State, and Ohio State gave the outsiders a platform to speculate where his landing spot would ultimately be. Although he chose Ohio State to be his new home, he still respects all the other schools that have heavily recruited him. “I appreciate all the opportunities that I’ve received to advance to the next level,” Julian said. “Each program has their own great things to them, but once you feel at home it’s over.”
With the stardom that the SCA junior has had to live with these past couple of years, he’s learned how to handle it with modesty and not let it get to his head. At the other end of the spectrum, he has had to endure some pretty harsh comments from opposing fans who have tried to get under his skin, albeit unsuccessfully, to throw him off his game. Now with Fleming’s college verdict decided, he will hear and see mixed comments from fan bases all over the country. “Julian has handled this whole process with a lot of maturity. He is definitely a rare talent that has all the tools to be a success wide receiver at the next level,” said Fleming’s current head coach Jim Roth.
Being from Pennsylvania, the PSU fans could be the ones to provide the most negative feedback, but that is just part of the journey that the 2018 Pennsylvania Gatorade Player of the Year is on. “I’ve gotten to ignore them and grow as a person. The negativity has helped to shape me into who I am now,” Fleming said. One person that has helped put Fleming’s choice into perspective is Penn State’s top recruit from the class of 2018. Micah Parson’s, who is a linebacker, defended Fleming on Twitter by saying, “Man relax on Lil bro he just enjoying the process let him make the best decision for him and his family! Simple as that! I was in the same position not too long ago! Just let him make a decision and let God work!” The bottom line is that Fleming made the same choice that thousands of others make on a yearly basis. That choice is whatever one is the best for him regardless of the university or location. Most importantly, he has the full support from the ones that matter the most, his family. “It is amazing. I have such a great support cast who have all been super supportive of my decision,” said Julian about his family.
When Julian makes that first trip down Woody Hayes Drive, for a Saturday game in ‘The Horseshoe’, he will get to experience one of the largest stadium crowds not just in the country, but in the world. Two other colossal venues that he will play in will be at Penn State (Beaver Stadium) and Michigan (The Big House). OSU’s gridiron rivalry with Michigan rivals the matchup of Duke and North Carolina on the hardwood as the top sports rivalry in the country at any level. “Knowing Julian’s school of choice, I think it would be awesome to play by his side, but I also think it’d be pretty crazy to think I could be his biggest rival,” said another one of the Tigers top recruits Cal Haladay.
Fleming has experienced the traditions of his own high school football program which stem back to before he was born. He has practiced down in Southern Columbia’s Death Valley. He’s made the pre-game walk each home game down the paw print hill to enter the field at Tiger Stadium with the band playing the SCA entrance song. He’s finished each season in Hershey Park Stadium in the PIAA Championship (no high school has been there more) and has been a part of the annual pep rallies.
These traditions, and more, have shown Fleming what school and community connection is all about, so he will be more than ready to dive into the well-known traditions in Columbus, Ohio. “I know you don’t step on the big ‘O’ in the Ohio State weight room,” said Fleming with a smile. Whether it’s the tradition of earning Buckeye Leaves for his silver helmet, experiencing the ringing of the Victory Bell, hearing his home Ohio State crowd sing their version of “Hang on Sloopy”, or celebrating with the mascot Brutus Buckeye, he will be a part of many more traditions.
Now that the biggest decision of his young life is over with, Fleming can focus his attention on his upcoming senior season with the most successful high school football program in his home state of Pennsylvania. The Southern Columbia Tigers are chasing after a 10th PIAA State Championship and would become the first school in the state to accomplish the feat. With Fleming, and a handful of other Division 1 recruits playing in their final season, the Tigers will be the heavy favorites to win a third consecutive crown after finishing as the state runner-up as freshmen. “These guys are familiar with having the pressure from outsiders on them to win. We just take it one game at a time and make sure that the players don’t look ahead,” Roth said.
Anyone that wants to catch a glimpse of Fleming on the national stage, that hasn’t yet watched the two-time defending Class 2A Player of the Year, the viewers won’t have to wait long. The Tigers have been chosen to open their season on a Sunday in late August on ESPN in a high school football showcase game. Southern Columbia will travel down South to take on the Hammond Skyhawks who are the 16-time state champions out of South Carolina. “Man, I’m excited. It’s going to be a good one. They have athletes, we have athletes, so it will be a battle,” Julian said. The Skyhawks feature two of the nation’s top recruits. They have a defensive end (ranked sixth) and an offensive lineman that are ranked in the ESPN Top 300. In addition to the Tigers having to make the long travel to play in Hammond’s home stadium, it will already be the midway point of the Skyhawks regular season with the Tigers just starting out.
Entering 2019, Fleming has completely shattered not just the Southern Columbia program records, but also the District IV records. Barring any setback in the fall, he will own all the major Pennsylvania state receiving records and will continue to climb up the United States career list. After upping his production each season, for his career he has caught 183 passes for 3,942 yards and 55 touchdowns even with missing some time due to injury. He has the realistic opportunity to break the Keystone State’s yardage and touchdown marks during the middle of the regular season. The receptions mark will be a tougher feat because with how often he scores it doesn’t allow for him to accumulate as many receptions. “The crazy thing is to think what Julian’s statistics would be if he had to play a full game. The stats he has put up so far in his career are basically all in one half, or even sometimes less than that, and he doesn’t complain. When we need him to step up in a closer game in the third and fourth quarters he has done just that,” said Roth.
Julian has also filed the appropriate paperwork to graduate high school early. This gives him the opportunity to get a head start on college which has become a common theme for the elite college prospects over the course of this decade. “I mean I’ve been here my whole life. I figured it’d be the best opportunity to get adapted to college life, and I’ll be in the Under Armour All-American game right before so there shouldn’t be any issues,” Fleming said. Being a star athlete, two programs that will take a hit with Fleming’s early graduation are the basketball and track & field programs at SCA as he won’t have the opportunity to compete for the Tigers in the winter and spring. “It’s bitter sweet. It was a good time coming up and just playing, but now I have a real goal and focus. Now I have to put my all into it,” said the Tiger junior. Fleming scored more points on the hardwood than any other baller had before him during their freshman season. If he played a full career, he most likely would have finished in the top three of SCA’s career scoring list. On the track, he broke the school record in the 100-meter dash and anchored the record-breaking 4×100 relay team. In the field, he reset the Tigers’ long-standing record for long jump. During the PIAA Track & Field State Championships, he picked up a medal in all four of his events including two silvers.
Now that Fleming’s decision is in the rear-view mirror, the rest of the dominoes will start to fall. “His commitment, along with tons of other kids in the 2020 class that have committed or will be committing soon, will allow coaches to better understand what positions they need to offer. Then, hopefully some of us can receive some FBS offers,” Southern Columbia junior Preston Zachman said. At least four more offers will be from Fleming’s teammates. Cal Haladay has received offers from Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, and Pitt among others. Gaige Garcia has received the second most offers of any of the Tiger juniors including from all the schools in the Ivy and Patriot League. Zachman and Max Tillett have both received their share of offers as well from FCS programs like Colgate, Fordham, and Youngstown State. “We can’t worry about the recruiting process too much. We need to focus on getting the 10th title. If we play how we know we can play, then the schools will find us during our run to the state championship,” Tillett said.
One thing is for sure, regardless of what decisions have or will be made, the Southern Columbia can now settle down and start to get to work. With the summer months upon us, and the hype directed towards the Tigers, these next seven months will go by quick. Everyone has a right to an opinion, and living in this great country that allows freedom of speech, just remember that not all that is said is true. The one thing that is true, is that the 2019 version of the Tigers wants to end the decade in record-setting fashion. Regardless of what the critics say or do, Southern Columbia wants to end their upcoming season in December with more bling. Then the senior class can go on to worry about their college thing. Who knows, later on one of them might even have the opportunity to get an NFL ring.