SPARTANBURG, S.C. — The veteran coach always wanted all his players to go into multiple sports when they were in high school, because it makes them more well-rounded and better at what they’re playing that season.
So when C.J. Saunders was excelling in baseball and basketball as a youth player in Dublin, Ohio, the baseball coach at Coffman High was happy to hear he was also going out for the soccer team as a freshman.
“We knew he was too small to play football,” the coach said.
Did we mention the baseball coach was also C.J.’s dad, Tim?
Clearly, C.J. Saunders gets this a lot.
The perpetually overlooked and probably underrated wide receiver was not only big enough to play high school football, but big enough to become a team captain at Ohio State and, last year, to make it to the NFL when the Panthers called him up from the practice squad, and he caught his first two NFL passes in the finale against Tampa Bay.
Not bad for a guy who thought he had played his last down of football two years ago, and was working as a graduate assistant at Ohio State, figuring he’d end up following his father’s path as a coach.
But this offseason, he’s been out there making plays routinely in Panthers practice, running with the starting offense as the slot receiver, and getting noticed for what he’s doing by his peers. If he seemed a little like some kind of novelty last year when coaches started talking him up in training camp, the admiration for what he’s doing has become a little more real this year.
“The other day, he made two or three plays that looked like Pro Bowl plays,” Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said one day after practice.
“I don’t think there’s a guy here that doesn’t have confidence in C.J. already,” Rhule mentioned on a different day.
It’s tempting to consider things like that coach-speak, because there’s nothing any coach loves more than someone who overcomes physical limitations with practice habits and fundamentals and mastery of the scheme. And as long as sports have been organized, coaches have always been willing to talk up overachievers, if only to motivate the really talented guys.
But here’s the thing: Saunders is making some plays.
One particular morning during OTAs, Saunders was lined up outside, across from some guy named Jaycee Horn. He ran a route that juked Horn off his feet, leaving the first-round cornerback pounding the grass in frustration, watching Saunders celebrate in the end zone with teammates. It wasn’t the only time he got behind one of the talented (and much, much larger) corners on the Panthers defense, earning him the evident respect of the guys out there on the field with him.
“He’s a great player,” Horn said with a nod. “Really shifty guy in the slot. It’s always good sparring against a guy like him. We just go compete; it’s fun.”
Still, when you call a football player shifty, especially when that guy’s listed at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds on the roster (more on that later), it’s a little like saying your blind date has a great personality.
People underestimate C.J. Saunders. A lot.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” Horn agreed. “He can definitely sneak up on you. By now, every DB knows when you go out there against him, you better have your cleats tied and be ready to work if C.J. is lined up across from you.”
Saunders is confident in his own abilities, but he’s also used to having to prove himself. That’s not the same as thinking he has anything made, because the Panthers receiving room is deep and has a lot of options. So having some success on the practice field isn’t going to change his approach.
“Maybe, I just try to focus on what I can,” Saunders replied, when asked if he opened some eyes this spring when he was working against Horn and Donte Jackson and Myles Hartsfield and the first nickel defense. “Jaycee, Myles, D-Jack, those guys are so talented, and going against them every day makes me better. You’re not going to win every rep. You’re trying to. But that’s something I’d say maybe gives you the confidence of your teammates that you can do it.
“I just try to focus and do the best I can, and if you do enough of the right stuff, people are going to notice.”
People have noticed.
But he’s always done the kind of things to make them notice.
Maybe his dad is partial, because he’s coached baseball all his life. (Tim Saunders was also just named to the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame). But he thought with C.J.’s combination of size and speed that baseball was probably the surest — and safest — path for his son.
“He had the kind of athleticism and grace, he could make diving catches and come up throwing; he was a great defensive player,” Tim said. The Rawlings Gold Glove award he won in high school, one of three for high school outfielders, suggests as much.
But in those days, C.J.’s passion was for basketball.
“He dunked three times at 5-foot-10,” his dad bragged.
This was confirmed by non-related persons as well, as Ohio State receivers coach and former NFL wideout Brian Hartline vouched for this.
“It’s well-known in Ohio that C.J. was the greatest athlete to ever come out of Dublin Coffman,” Hartline said.
That school also produced former Notre Dame quarterback and NFL first-rounder Brady Quinn, and Major League Baseball pitcher Kent Mercker, among others, so he’s been around some talent, at school and at home. C.J.’s mother, Janie, was also a three-time All-American swimmer in college (at Tennessee and Indiana).
“He got all his athleticism from his mother, and all his coaching ability from me,” Dad said with a laugh.
And those combined traits served him well when he went to Ohio State as a football walk-on.
He began his Buckeyes career as a cornerback (he picked off then-Buckeyes quarterback Joe Burrow in fall camp in 2016; file that away for Week 9) but eventually transitioned to wide receiver. He was getting good enough at it to earn a scholarship, and attained enough respect on the practice fields to be named a team captain for the Buckeyes in 2019.
All the work worked.
But that’s when it happened.
A knee injury just before the start of the senior season, which he kind of understated by saying, “a little bit of femur was chipped off my knee, so I had to get a surgery for that,” and kept him from fulfilling his hard-won role as captain.
“It was tough,” his father said. “To put in all that work, and to never get to toss one coin or shake one hand, . . .”
But Saunders approached that difficulty as he had so many others, by putting his head down and committing himself. He has a perspective about him for a person so young, and when asked to sum up his up-and-down college experience, he began by saying: “First of all, I’m just super grateful.”
Not everyone thinks that way.
He tried to come back later that year to play against Nebraska, but the pain in his knee didn’t allow it. As a senior in college, his career appeared to be ending just as it was beginning.
“It was tough not to think that [my career was over],” Saunders said. “I think in my time of sadness and sorrow, where I already missed what I thought was going to be my best season, and as a team, nothing was guaranteed after that. I didn’t have any big stats to show besides my practice tape.
“So I was like, man, sports might not be in the future for me. I still felt good; I had people encouraging me to still chase that dream if I still had it. So I appreciate that. But there were definitely thoughts that, man, playing in the NFL might not be for me.”
There was still one shot. He petitioned the NCAA for a medical exception and a sixth year of eligibility.
The NCAA said no.
His coaches were as heartbroken as he was, but determined to keep him around the program. So he was offered a chance to be a graduate assistant in 2020 by head coach Ryan Day.
“When that sixth year got denied, by that point, the NFL season was about to get going, so coach Day extended the opportunity to be on staff, work with coach Hartline, work with the wideouts,” Saunders recalled. “So that year, I really learned a lot about the game, how to watch film, got to be with some of the best coaches in the country there at Ohio State, breaking down film, what they like, what they don’t like. That really helped my game, and if I was ever given a chance to get back on the field, at that point, it wasn’t guaranteed at any means; I felt like I could use that to my advantage.
“That 2020 year was hard, obviously. I wanted to still be playing still and felt like I could, but the circumstances didn’t allow me at that time. I learned a lot, to say the least.”
He also taught some things.
“He still had such a presence in the building,” Hartline said. “For him to learn the coaching and scouting side of it was great for him, and I think it opened some doors. Each week, he would give the scouting report on the opposing DBs, and you could tell he understood the game at a high level. Him knowing as much as he knew about the game was huge for us.”
Once he recovered from knee surgery, he continued to work out, holding onto the dream. He was always fast, never like Horn/Jackson kind of fast, but few are. But after that surgery, it was reasonable to wonder if he’d ever get back to his previous condition. Hartline knows he’s in good shape, but he wondered what the Panthers were feeding Saunders to get him to 190: “He was chasing 180 on a good day, and he was usually a rocked-up 175, so he looked bigger than he was.”
Speaking of numbers, it’s also worth pointing out that in 23 games at Ohio State, Saunders caught a grand total of 27 passes for 294 yards and a touchdown. Those stats don’t lie, but Hartline doesn’t think they tell the whole story.
“Honestly, I think he could be a better NFL receiver than here, because of what we ask our guys to do,” Hartline said. “He’s not coming out of the slot and blocking a lot of big linebackers in the NFL. Guys his size can succeed based on the way they’re used.
“But C.J. was one of the hardest covers on our team. His cerebral qualities, and his makeup, those were all elite skill traits. You can not be the best athlete, as long as you do something at an elite level. And his work ethic and route-running were always off the charts.”
So Hartline and others urged him to keep trying. He went to a tryout camp with the Falcons last spring, but they didn’t bite. The Panthers brought him in, possibly based on some familiarity on the part of vice president of player personnel Pat Stewart (an Ohio State grad, who was living in Columbus and was familiar with Saunders’ work on and off the field).
Last year, it was easy to wonder if Saunders was just some try-hard rookie whose only job was to fill out lines in practice and serve as an example. But then he kept making plays, and kept getting noticed. So they kept him around on the practice squad.
This year, he’s more than just a guy. He’s a guy making plays. He’s still humble about his chances — which makes sense, considering what’s around him — but they’re a lot more real now than they were a year ago.
“No doubt,” Saunders said when asked if he feels different this year. “Like anything, you hear from the greats I’ve studied talk about the mental aspect; there’s something about coming back, going into year two really hungry. And not just feeling good and being able to physically give it your all, but you can play so much faster when you know what you’re doing and what you’re trying to get done. That’s something that’s helped me this spring and something I’d like to carry into the fall.
“Just play with your mind, know what you’re seeing, and then know how to beat it. That’s something that’s given me an extra boost of confidence overall. If anything, I hope when I step on the field, I’m playing as fast as I can. Being a receiver, even if you don’t run a 4.3 flat, you can still put fast tape on film. That’s who you are because that’s what matters when you step on the field.”
And it’s hard not to miss him on the field, for his results and his on-field style. While most receivers opt for a cinched-in sleeve on their jerseys to look tight, Saunders has these big open arm-holes flopping in the wind like he’s at JV tryouts, or maybe in 1985. It’s an old-school look, which kind of fits his game.
“I’m trying to take a step this year, and be the most comfortable when I’m playing, and I feel comfortable all the time in T-shirt mode, so let’s try that,” he said with a laugh when asked about his practice jersey. “It’s wardrobe, but everything makes a difference out there. It’s given me a sense of comfort, and I like it.”
Asked if any of his fashion-conscious teammates have teased him about the look and he laughed: “Maybe they’re saying it behind my back, but I haven’t heard it yet.”
Horn’s not going out to practice looking like that, but he’s not saying anything about Saunders’ style, either.
“Nah, nobody’s making fun of him,” the first-round pick and son of an NFL player who seems born for his job said. “He puts in the work on the field. That’s pretty much all that matters.”
Again, the competition for a job here in the regular season will be tight. Coupled with the fact that the Panthers may keep three quarterbacks this season, there’s no guarantee they’ll keep six receivers again or whether the sixth one will be Saunders.
All he can do is what he’s always done.
His father’s hoping for the best. Tim and Janie Saunders didn’t make the Buccaneers game last year since C.J. was elevated from the practice squad the Saturday before the game, and they couldn’t get a flight in time. So they watched his first NFL catches on TV. They planned trips to Charlotte when they knew they’d see him, so they opted for some three-day weekends when he was home (practice squad players don’t travel) rather than hoping for something that might not come.
Thinking back on the journey so far took Tim Saunders back to the time when C.J. (an all-district choice in three sports) didn’t make the all-state team in basketball as a senior. Imagine that, C.J. Saunders overlooked.
At Dublin Coffman, you make all-state or reach an even higher lifetime athletic achievement, and they put you on the wall in the gym.
“He asked me, ‘How am I going to get on the wall now?'” Tim recalled. “I looked at him and said, ‘I guess you’re going to have to focus on baseball and make the Major Leagues; that’s all that’s left.’
“And I’ll be damned; he proved us all wrong again.”