COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Penn State receiver Kaden Saunders was a top-rated recruit for the class of 2022. The Westerville South graduate was the No. 3-ranked player in Ohio and a top-60 recruit, according to 247Sports. However, he did not receive an offer from Ohio State.

This week, Saunders and the Nittany Lions travel to Ohio Stadium to take on Ohio State in a top-10 showdown that will have massive implications for the Big Ten and College Football Playoff.

“It means a lot going back to Columbus,” Saunders said. “I’m sure I’m going to have a lot of people I know there. I’m not sure if all of them will be rooting for Penn State, but just being there back home and knowing I have a lot of people in the stands supporting me means a lot.”

Ohio State did try to recruit Saunders, but the Buckeyes wanted him to play defensive back rather than receiver, where they already had some of the most talented players in college football.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a chip on my shoulder. I respect Ohio State,” Saunders said. “They were recruiting me for a position that I didn’t necessarily want to play, so I decided to look at other options and ended up where I’m at and I’m happy with my decision.”

He hasn’t had many opportunities at receiver, but the skills are there for the four-year letterman at Westerville South. Saunders helped the Wildcats to three winning seasons and earned first-team all-state honors twice. Former Westerville mayor Kathleen Cocuzzi even designated Nov. 3, 2021, as “Kaden Saunders Day” in honor of his selection to the 2022 Under Armour All-America game.

“Growing up, I didn’t even think I’d be playing college football,” he said. “I was always set on baseball, but once I got into high school and everything and offers started coming in, really my mind wasn’t set on going to Ohio State, it was just going to where the best fit was for me and my family.”

Westerville South stats

  • Receiving: 114 receptions for 1,978 yards
  • Rushing: 63 rushes for 644 yards
  • Special teams: 71 returns for 1,616 yards

Saunders has been used primarily as a punt returner for the Nittany Lions, with 13 returns for 88 yards. Since arriving at State College in 2022, Saunders said his route-running has improved but more importantly his habits off the field. He said he arrived “out of shape” as a true freshman and learned he had to change what and how he ate and spent a lot of time with the football team’s dietitian.

“I feel like I’m back to myself,” he said. “My body composition’s right, so just being with [our training staff] and coach [James] Franklin, they’ve been hard on me, so yeah, it’s been good.”

Last year, Saunders was roommates with quarterback Drew Allar, a Medina, Ohio, native who’s starting for the Nittany Lions. The two developed a bond well before arriving at Penn State during private training sessions as high schoolers in Ohio.

“Kaden has grown a lot,” Allar said. “He’s always asking me questions, in our room, on the field. We have a really good relationship. … I can tell he’s a lot more comfortable than he was last year. He’s playing fast. He’s playing fluid, and he’s gotten a lot stronger in the weight room.”

“Coach Franklin tells us all the time everybody’s journey is gonna be different,” Saunders said in February. “Seeing everybody in my class have success right away didn’t get me feeling some type of way. I was excited for them. With time, I’m going to be right there on the field with them.”