Former Buckeyes walk-on, captain C.J. Saunders earns NFL opportunity

Pete Nakos4 months
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C.J. Saunders senior by Birm
Former Ohio State wide receiver C.J. Saunders has signed for rookie camp with the Atlanta Falcons. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

COLUMBUS — C.J. Saunders never stopped working at his dream.

Even when the NCAA didn’t grant him a sixth year of eligibility following an injury-riddled senior season, the walk-on turned captain joined Ohio State’s coaching staff this past season and trained on his own time. The wide receiver prepared for Buckeyes Pro Day, too, making one last-ditch effort to draw some attention from NFL scouts. He pulled in the best pass of the workout, too, catching Justin Fields’ bullet when he rolled out to his left.

On Tuesday, Saunders work was rewarded. Lettermen Row has confirmed the Ohio State product has signed on for rookie camp with the Atlanta Falcons.

“To me, he’s a guy that I use as an example a lot — whether it be taking tests in our room, whether it’s overall effort in our room, he does a great job and that makes it really hard for me to find a bad rep on film,” Ohio State wide receivers coach Brian Hartline said in 2019. “It’s really hard for me to find lack of effort on a test.

C.J. Saunders-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State wide receiver C.J. Saunders lost his senior year to an injury. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

“It’s not like I’m trying to put him on a pedestal … but our expectation is trying to be different, trying to be great. I can’t find a half-speed rep on film of C.J. Saunders. It’s impossible. He’s doing a great job of leading the room by example.”

Even when he wasn’t on the field, Hartline and Ohio State’s wide receivers could count on him for his coaching skills. His walk-on story is remarkable on its own, though. A Dublin native, he joined the program in 2016 as a cornerback. He made the switch to wide receiver and earned a scholarship before the 2018 season. He was named a team captain for the 2019 season; his Ohio State career includes 27 receptions for 294 yards and one touchdown in 2017 against UNLV.

Saunders could be a coach one day if he wants. But his football career isn’t over yet.

He’s headed to Atlanta.