Former Ohio State football team captain C.J. Saunders hopes to turn pro day into NFL shot

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State receiver C.J. Saunders, here making a reception against Illinois on Nov. 18, 2017, missed the past two seasons.

C.J. Saunders knew the pass was coming.

About a week before Ohio State held its pro day, he and a group of wide receivers met with Justin Fields in Columbus to go over the quarterback’s throwing script.

It included a variety of tosses, including ones that seemed destined to become viral highlight clips.

For Fields’ final throw, he was to spin to his left, roll a few yards outside the hashmarks and heave a pass toward the end zone, mirroring a similar attention-grabbing pass from fellow NFL draft prospect Zach Wilson at his pro-day workout.

“I saw the writing on the wall,” Saunders said, “which is pretty cool as you prepare for that. Whereas in a game, you don't really know when that play is going to happen, in a pro-day setting, a controlled setting, we kind of knew.”

Set up as the target, Saunders never broke stride as he ran his route across the indoor field of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center to bring in a ball hurled 65 yards through the air.

The throw, which went off as well as they planned, seemed to cement Fields’ status as a top pick in this month’s draft.

But the professional prospects are far less certain for Saunders, a former walk-on receiver from Dublin who earned a scholarship and was named a team captain for the Buckeyes.

Saunders was sidelined for his final two seasons in college. A knee injury kept him out in 2019, then his petition for a sixth year of eligibility was denied by the NCAA on the eve of preseason training camp in August, keeping him off the field and leaving him in a role as a student assistant. The last pass he caught in a game came in a midseason loss at Purdue in 2018.

“It's definitely made it a little different,” Saunders said. “I would have loved to have more recent tape, obviously.”

Ohio State receiver C.J. Saunders runs after a catch against Maryland on Oct. 7, 2017.

Without recent game film, Saunders relied on last week’s pro day as his best chance to impress scouts and other league talent evaluators.

Along with catching passes from Fields, he went through individual testing. In the 40-yard dash, he ran an unofficial time of 4.69 seconds. He felt best effort came in the jumping events, recording a touch above 9 feet in the broad jump and 34 ½ inches in the vertical jump, surpassing some of his goals.

In the leadup to the workout, Saunders trained at Ohio State’s facility with Quinn Barham, the team’s assistant strength and conditioning coach.

Beyond the field, he also makes another pitch to teams.

“Mostly what I try to display is my attitude toward the game and how seriously I take what I’m doing,” Saunders said. “You can show that through good conversation and show your knowledge of the game, how dedicated you are. You kind of want to sell yourself the best you can, while also seeing how you fit into an organization and how they operate.

“So I think that's something that I would be able to come in and fit in right away to what whatever the coach and general manager are trying to build or have built at that franchise.”

In his coaching role with the Buckeyes last season, Saunders expanded his base of knowledge of football. Assisting wide receivers coach Brian Hartline, he cut film and prepared scouting reports on opposing defensive backs.

The experience will also prepare him for other career opportunities.

Saunders is planning for a career in coaching once he hangs up his cleats. His father, Tim, coached the baseball team at Dublin Coffman High School for more than three decades, but he hopes to work either in college or the NFL. He finished his master’s degree in sports management in December.

But as much as coaching remains a long-term ambition, he confessed it was difficult to be sidelined last fall.

“That was something that I’d always worked for in my career: to play on Saturdays and help this team as much as I could,” Saunders said. “Once that was no longer an option, it did hit home, and it was tough to get ready for that next step.”

The abrupt ending to his playing career with the Buckeyes was one of the reasons he prized the opportunity to participate in pro day, catching passes from Fields and all.

“I didn't really get the closure I would have liked as a player,” Saunders said. “You get that last game or whatever. So I kind of used as the final stamp on a chapter as player at Ohio State.”

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman