Show me somebody whose time as a college athlete went the way they expected it to go and I’ll show you a complete outlier, if not a figment of their own imagination.
Expectation is where reality often goes to feel miserable about itself. It would be a lonely place, if not for all of the onlookers who shared those same expectations for you.
Julian Fleming came to Ohio State as the No. 1 player in ESPN’s 2020 recruiting class rankings. Despite coming from a run-heavy Wing-T offense, he was the No. 1 receiver according to each major recruiting service. Based on those rankings, Fleming’s 53 career catches over his first three seasons as a Buckeye may seem underwhelming.
But when you look at the reality of the situation, the clarity begins to crystalize.
For instance, Fleming is completely healthy right now. Do you know the last time he could say that?
Neither does he.
“It’s a great question. I’m not sure. I’m honestly not too sure,” Fleming said last week.
Injuries are part of the game, and he’s now been through two significant labrum surgeries. He basically has two new shoulders. The first surgery came after his freshman season. The second came last year, following a season where he caught 36 passes for 533 yards, scoring six times.
“Yeah, it definitely had a little bit of effect but it’s a no-excuse mentality,” Fleming said. “Plays I didn’t make, I didn’t make. So I’m not gonna blame it on having bad shoulders or anything like that.”
That statement also comes from the same interview session where Fleming talked about “a bunch of different times” that his shoulders dislocated on the field and he’d pop them back in.
How are you supposed to catch passes like that? Let alone fight with defenders or try to block them.
“Got to figure it out,” he said. “Some way or the other.”
“Figure it out.” The rallying cry of someone with no great answers, just resolve. It’s the aggressive version of “It is what it is.” That’s been Julian Fleming’s first three years. Figuring things out on the fly. Shoulders popping like collars. Learning how to be a wide receiver, but also learning enough about the human shoulder to give Dr. James Andrews a run for his money.
Fleming calls his first three years at Ohio State “rocky” because of the injuries, but he can also look back over all of the jagged edges to see how far he’s come.
“There’s no growth without adversity,” he said, “and if you can’t grow through adversity then obviously this is not going to be the place for you.”
Spoken like somebody who has bypassed expectations and has chosen to remain in the here and now.
“Sometimes you just have to throw away people’s expectations,” Fleming said.
Fleming is now one of the most experienced players on the Ohio State offense. He’s been through the COVID year, he’s dealt with injuries, he has had highs and lows, and he understands that everybody comes to Ohio State with some level of expectation. And he’s using all of that to help lead the next generation.
“I feel like I kind of am starting to grow into that leadership role and continuing to excel at it,” he said. “I’m an older dude in the wide receiver room now, so I feel like a lot of young kids need someone to look up to, somebody who’s been through it. You know, somebody who’s been through not having things go their way all the time.”
Over his first three years, Fleming has started 10 games, caught 53 passes, put a number of defenders into the dirt, and focused more on his team than himself.
Now, however, Fleming is coming into more focus. He is healthy. He is experienced. And he is ready to play with the kind of freedom that two new shoulders can bring a guy.
What will that mean on the football field?
“I mean, I’m pretty big. I’m pretty physical. Pretty fast,” Fleming said. “I don’t know, I feel like I bring the kind of different attributes, depending on my health. I guess you guys have seen it, but I always feel like size and speed have been my biggest advantages. You know, the [defensive backs] aren’t always the biggest. I’m a little bit bigger than them usually. But, you know, just being able to come out and be a playmaker.”
Being somebody who was given the weighted gift of expectations, you could excuse a healthy Fleming for wanting to show everybody what they’ve been waiting for. Fleming has been waiting for that too. Or, more accurately, he has been working for that. He’s been the one going through all of it.
Each day. Each shoulder. Every pop.
But even now, when asked about his individual goals for this season, he isn’t thinking about himself.
“Right now the goal is on Indiana first game, so I don’t really have any self-expectations right now,” Fleming said. “I just want to win, and I want the team to be everything that we work to be.”
He is thinking about the team, which shouldn’t be a surprise. That’s the one expectation that was never unrealistic. It’s why he kept fighting to play even when his body wasn’t cooperating.
But Julian Fleming is finally healthy. Ohio State offensive coordinator Brian Hartline joked that Fleming now has two “bionic shoulders.”
Bionic or not, Fleming’s shoulders are now healthy enough to carry the weight of expectations. Through adversity, however, he is also mature enough to know that expectations are only as heavy as the weight you give them.