Check out highlights from York Catholic’s 56-23 loss to undefeated Southern Columbia in the state playoffs.
Matt Allibone, email@example.com
For other players, it would just be a piece of headgear.
When you’re Julian Fleming, it’s enough to raise questions.
The Southern Columbia receiver, one of the nation’s top football recruits, spent the second half of the Tigers’ 56-23 state playoff win over York Catholic two weeks ago wearing a University of Michigan visor on the sideline. Fleming hadn’t previously listed the Wolverines as one of his preferred landing spots.
Should Penn State fans be worried about another Big Ten program gaining ground on a prized Pennsylvania recruit?
According to Fleming, people shouldn’t lose sleep over his clothing choices.
“I just like to mix it up,” he said after the York Catholic game. “I wore Ohio State (gloves) a couple weeks ago and Michigan this time. Who knows? Somebody else might pop up again soon.”
While Fleming wearing the gear of not one but two Nittany Lion rivals might not ease the minds of local fans too much, the receiver displayed that “somebody else” this past Friday, flashing Penn State gloves in Southern Columbia’s state semifinal win over West Catholic.
Bottom line: The player ranked by some as the nation’s top receiver in the Class of 2020 is keeping his options open.
And Penn State remains firmly in the mix.
“I like Penn State,” Fleming said after the York Catholic game. “My family is here in Pennsylvania and a lot of them went there.
The Nittany Lions are determined to add Fleming to their future roster. James Franklin wore a Penn State No. 4 jersey — Fleming’s number — while attending a Southern Columbia game earlier this fall. And Fleming has attended multiple games at Beaver Stadium this season.
Still, close to 30 major programs across the country are after Fleming’s services. The list includes 2018 College Football Playoff teams Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame.
And the 6-foot-3, 210-pound speedster is listening.
“I don’t know if there’s a point to being in Pa. your whole life,” he said. “There’s so much exposure everywhere else.
“So it’s a tough decision wherever I’m going.”
A composite ranking developed by 247 Sports has Fleming listed as a five-star recruit and the No. 1 receiver in the country, the No. 1 player in Pennsylvania and No. 9 overall in the country for the Class of 2020. Rivals.com currently has him as the top player in Pennsylvania and No. 5 receiver in the country, but he’s expected to bump up in the website’s upcoming rankings, according to Mid-Atlantic recruiting analyst Adam Friedman.
What makes Fleming so special?
“It’s all no-brainer type of stuff,” Friedman said. “Great speed, great consistency with his hands. He’s a really good route runner and he’s got excellent ball skills. I’d love to see him work against some more talented (defensive backs) who could really put him through the ringer, but that’s nitpicking.
“It’s just incredible what he’s doing.”
What Fleming is doing is becoming the most accomplished receiver in the history of District 4 — the area north of District 3 stretching through Williamsport to the New York border. And his senior season hasn’t even started. The junior already owns the district’s career records for catches (177), receiving yards (3,913) and receiving touchdowns (55).
In 15 games this season, Fleming has 72 catches for 1,495 yards and 22 touchdowns despite regularly coming out of games early as undefeated Southern Columbia has beaten opponents by an average of 44 points. It’s his second straight season topping 1,400 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Friedman said he sees similarities between Fleming and N’Keal Harry, the Arizona State standout junior who recently declared for the NFL draft after back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in the Pac-12.
“I can’t remember a guy coming out of Pa. quite like him,” Friedman said. “It’s been a long time.”
Fleming’s Hudl page lists him as running the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds and posting a 39-inch vertical leap. His highlight film shows him both beating defenders deep and catching short passes before zooming past (or through) them.
Not to mention he plays cornerback, punter and returns kicks for the Tigers.
Against York Catholic, he caught five passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns in one half of play despite chilly temperatures and a steady rain. He also showed off his physicality, pancaking an Irish defender to the ground to spring a long run for teammate Gavin Garcia early in the third quarter.
“Playing in the rain is fun to an extent,” Fleming said while flashing a wide smile. “But it does make you focus more.”
Well-spoken for his age, Fleming seems to be handling the attention he gets well. Following the York Catholic game, he took time to pose for pictures with numerous Irish players.
He comes off as humble and is quick to thank teammates and family for his success. With him in the lineup, Southern Columbia has gone 46-1 and reached three straight PIAA championship games.
The Tigers will look to win their second straight state title this Friday against Wilmington at Hersheypark Stadium at 1 p.m.
“I don’t know anyone in the state that can guard him,” said Southern Columbia senior quarterback Stone Hollenbach, who will be a preferred walk-on at Alabama. “When he has a big play it gets the entire sideline into the game. Not only is he a great talent, he’s a great guy, too.”
While Fleming has been playing football for 10 years, he didn’t foresee this kind of success for himself as a kid. The grandson of longtime Southern Columbia basketball coach Mick Fleming, Julian grew up having “hoop dreams.”
Then came his freshman football season.
Fleming burst on to the PIAA scene, catching 36 passes for 956 yards and 13 touchdowns as Southern Columbia reached the state title game. That spring, Michigan gave him his first Division I offer.
“I got a lot of exposure from that,” Fleming said.
His notoriety only grew the following season, and Fleming finished his sophomore year of high school with scholarship offers in the double-digits. Still, there was something he needed to overcome to bring his performance up a notch.
The one thing he had long despised.
“I hated lifting,” Fleming said. “I was scared of the weight room.”
Having previously avoided weight training all together, Fleming spent this past offseason trapping himself in gym at the behest of teammates Nate Crowl and Ty Roadarmel. He often lifted weights twice a day for two hours at a time. Fleming also reformed his diet, ditching snack foods for a high-protein meal plan.
The results were instantaneous, as Fleming put on 35 pounds of muscle to bulk up from 175 to 210.
“It was not a fun time,” he said. “I can’t thank my friends enough. They pushed me to start eating more and get healthier, and the weight just piled on.”
Still, he’s been able to keep one snack included in his new healthy lifestyle.
“I love Sour Patch Kids,” he said.
According to Friedman, Fleming’s added size and strength take his game “to the next level,” as long as his speed and quickness don’t suffer as a result. So far, that certainly hasn’t been a problem for the junior.
Though Fleming released a list of his top six schools before this season — featuring Penn State, Ohio State, USC, Georgia, Clemson and Virginia Tech — he has since backed off from it. He still has plenty of time to make his commitment and has yet to give a time frame on his decision.
Penn State’s roster already features promising receivers like K.J. Hamler, Justin Shorter and Jahan Dotson, and the team is expected to add more talent to the position during the upcoming 2019 commitment period. Still, it would be a big disappointment if the Nittany Lions miss out on Fleming.
“They can’t miss on an instate guy like him,” Friedman said. “He’s an instant impact player regardless of what the depth chart looks like.”
Fleming has grown accustomed to being the center of attention every time he steps on the field. According to him, his ability to stay humble comes from the same place as his motivation.
“I’ve got 100 percent the greatest supporting cast in my mom, my aunt, my uncle and my Pop-Pop,” he said. “They’ve been my leaders through all of this. They really push me to work hard and my work ethic has changed this year.
“Everyone expects so much from me, I feel I’ve got to dish it out every time and be the best player I can be.”