Fleming's Drive To Be The Best Extends To The Track

Lanny Conner put it bluntly when describing his star jumper and sprinter, Julian Fleming.

"He's a specimen."

Conner is in his final season after 38 years as head coach of Southern Columbia Area's track and field teams in Catawissa. In his long tenure, he likely hasn't seen an athlete quite like Fleming.

In certain circles, Julian Fleming is a household name. Whether it's the ESPN 300, Rivals 100 or 247 Sports, he is the top-ranked wide receiver recruit in the class of 2020. ESPN ranks Fleming as the No. 4 overall college football recruit -- for any position -- in his class.

Fleming had a monster junior season on the gridiron, piling up 1,497 yards and 22 touchdowns. He helped Southern Columbia to the PIAA Class AA state title and won the Mr. PA Football Small School award for a second straight year.

The 6 foot, 3 inch, 210-pound receiver recently narrowed his college search to six: Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State, Oregon, and Penn State. He took his first official visit back in April to Tuscaloosa where he met with Alabama head coach Nick Saban.

A major decision looms on the horizon for Fleming. But before then, the high school junior has some unfinished business.

In a relatively short period of time, Fleming has become one of Pennsylvania's top long jumpers. With the postseason nearing, Fleming has his sights set on some big goals in the event.

Entering the PA Heartland Athletic Conference (PHAC) Championships on Saturday, Fleming is ranked No. 1 in PIAA Class AA for the long jump. He is No. 3 overall in the state and 45th in the country with his best leap of 23-10.75.

It's been a rapid rise for Fleming, who after a breakthrough freshman season on the track, missed the track season last year as a sophomore while recovering from a football injury. In what has effectively been just two years of long jumping, Fleming has been a quick study to the event.

Through all the fanfare, the coaches knocking down his door, and the speculation on where he'll sign, Fleming has done a superb job of handling himself.

"I'm still a regular kid," he said. "I have a real good supporting cast. They help me keep my head on my shoulders, just being humble through everything."

Jumping right into the sport

The hype around Fleming's abilities on the football field had long been heating up when Fleming came out for Southern's track team in the spring of 2017. After growing bored of baseball, Fleming, then a freshman, wanted to change gears and track and field was next on his plate.

After some modest mid-21 foot long jumps throughout the regular season, the football standout made it known that he could be a track star, too. Fleming leapt 23 feet even to win the PIAA District 4 Class AA title.

It was a number that surprised just about everyone in the Southern camp.

"I had never hit 22 before, so I went from the 21s to a 23, it was one of the biggest surprises I ever had," Fleming said.

Conner's reaction was slightly different.

"It surprised me and frightened me, actually. When we have some kids that are really exceptional, I say the coaches' prayer: 'Oh please, lord, don't let me screw this kid up,'" he quipped.

It was a big moment for Fleming, the track athlete. He ended up 15th a week later at the PIAA State Championships, though, and that would end up being the last time he would long jump for nearly two years.

He suffered a torn labrum in his hip during his sophomore season in football, an injury that would require surgery and keep him from competing that spring on the Tigers' track and field team.

Once healthy, Fleming proved he hadn't lost a step in the fall. He had his best season yet on the football field and the scouts and rankings gurus took notice. He's a consensus 5-star recruit anywhere you look, and he climbed practically every site's recruiting lists.

Getting better on the field and on the runway

Perhaps there are connections between his jump up the recruiting rankings and his ascension up the state rankings in the long jump. After the surgery sidelined him from competition during the winter and spring of his sophomore season, Fleming hit the weights.

A lot.

"That was horrible. I hated it," he said of the recovery process. "I had so much built up energy that I started to lift. Freshman year, I was 170 (pounds). I got all the way up to 215. I put on muscle and a lot of strength, so that's been one of the big jumps."

The already strong and elusive wideout got even better in those areas with the added muscle mass.

It's also helped on the runway. While the 23-foot jump from his freshman year was somewhat of an anomaly, his consistency has improved in his best event.

"He's able to put a series together," Conner said. "That's what really pulls it all together so he can go after it a little bit harder because he knows that he can put one or two jumps at risk just to see what might happen.

Fleming concurs: "(Consistency) is probably the most important thing because if you go out and pop the first one, you have room to operate and go for the big one at some point within the next two jumps that you have."

It all came together at April 27's Lock Haven University High School Classic. On his first attempt, Fleming went out to 22 feet, 8 inches, despite missing the board.

"It was one of those nice days where I was feeling it," Fleming said. "My coach told me if you hit that board, you're going to pop something good."

He was right. On Fleming's third attempt, he hit a new personal best of 23 feet, 10.75 inches, bettering his own PIAA Class AA leading jump. On his sixth and final attempt, he put one out at 23 feet, 8 inches.

The road to 24 feet

The next step is 24 feet, which is rather rarified air in Pennsylvania; only four boys have eclipsed the 24-foot barrier since 2016 in the long jump. One of those boys, interestingly enough, was Nazareth Area's Jahan Dotson, who won the AAA state title in 2016 as a sophomore with a leap of 24-4.5. Dotson, too, was a top recruit at the wide receiver position, who just finished up his freshman season at Penn State.

Fleming said he's very hungry to get to 24: "I need an inch and a quarter. Progress is being made."

With three meets left in the season, Conner is optimistic he can get to that threshold.

"24 is written all over him. It's just a matter of putting all the pieces together," the coach said.

Conner said there's perhaps something else motivated Fleming -- the drive to be No. 1 in Pennsylvania regardless of classification.

I told him the best jump in the state is 24-1.5, and he was a little miffed about that," Conner said. "He wanted to make sure he had an opportunity to get out there and extend.

"He'd like to win AA states, but what he'd really like to do is have the best jump in the state, period. And he's capable."

Developing skills on the track

It's no secret that Fleming is a football player first and foremost. College visits have interrupted a few meet weekends throughout this spring. Still, It's not difficult to notice Fleming's drive to compete at the highest level, whatever the sport may be.

Fleming also sees track as a way of getting better on the football field.

"Football is the big thing, but you have to have other things to help you be well-rounded and help you improve as an overall athlete," he said. "I play football, basketball, and run track and they all transition into each other."

As a receiver, the first step off the line is crucial. That's where his training on the track comes into play.

"I have to get off the block quick," he said. "I need to make quick moves. I'm not a really quick kid -- It takes me a while to get moving, but I've gotten a little bit quicker."

Conner certainly sees the benefits of track and field for those on Southern's perennial power of a football squad. He's routinely seen some of the lineman come out for the track team and throw over 50 feet in the shot put.

"Footwork is everything," he explained. "If you're a good linemen, you can move well. They do a lot of footwork. They do a lot of drills, and it makes them a little bit quicker, enhancing their football abilities."

It helps that Southern head football coach Jim Roth formerly served as the sprint coach on Conner's track and field staff.

The environment is there for Fleming -- and others on the Tigers -- to thrive.

"Track is the perfect sport in my mind simply because there is absolutely something for everybody," Conner said.

The stretch run

The week after the state meet, Fleming has schedule a visit to the University of Georgia. His track and field career at that point will likely be over. The plan, according to Conner, is for Fleming to head to whatever college he chooses in the beginning of the spring semester to be on campus for his future team's spring game.

The next few weeks are probably the stretch run the junior's track and field career. He'll be busy competing in the long jump as well as the 100 meters at the PHAC Championships and then next week's PIAA District 4 Championships, where he's currently the top-ranked athlete in both events. He'll also play a pivotal role on Southern's 4x100 and 4x400, which are both ranked No. 2 in District 4 Class AA.

By the time the fall rolls around, Fleming will be back on the football field, looking to help Southern to another state championship, and preparing to announce his college selection.

For now, though, he's a high school student looking to close out the track season with a bang.

"My freshman year was kind of a bust at states," he said. "I have something to prove -- just to show I've matured as an athlete and a person."