Jerome Buckner has had plenty of time for introspection.
The redshirt junior has been reflecting on his collegiate career on and off since March 2020. The isolation from quarantine during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, followed up by a brief and unproductive 2020 season, sent Buckner looking for answers from within.
“Quarantine was a lot of time to just think, a lot of time to reflect and a lot of time to make some choices,” Buckner said. “When you're by yourself, you’ve got to really think about what you want out of life, what you want people to see you as and what you want to get out of this.”
Has the introspection helped? The stat sheet can testify. Buckner is second in receiving yards for Ohio and leads in yards per reception among wide receivers this season. He hasn’t caught a pass in Ohio’s last two games, but his performance against Syracuse still tops many of his fellow wide receivers.
Buckner isn’t superstitious, but he believes he manifested his early success into existence. His personal philosophy is a spin on “fake it until you make it.” If he isn’t confident in himself, he won’t reach his potential. Buckner’s grappled with that mindset before.
Buckner earned his first start as a redshirt freshman in Ohio’s game against Pitt in 2019. He took the starting job with no questions asked, but he doubted that he could live up to the standard he placed on himself. To compensate for his lack of experience, he attempted to force himself to stand out on the field.
Looking back, Buckner wishes he approached 2019 differently.
“I just wish I prepared a little bit more mentally so I could be more confident out there on the field,” Buckner said. “Because I'm doing the same things that I could have did back then, but now I just know that I can do it with confidence.”
Buckner has talent, no question. He’s difficult for defenders to cover despite his small frame — 5 feet, 8 inches and 165 pounds — and his speed helps him cruise downfield and evade tackles with ease. Still, his lack of confidence held him back in previous seasons.
This season, Buckner is learning to slow down and seize opportunities when they come. He knows he can be the receiver Ohio needs in big plays, but he’s not going to force Ohio’s offense to revolve around him.
“That was a lot of my chest (in 2019), but I was ready for it then,” Buckner said. “Back then, I just didn't take the game for what it was. I was trying to rush the game a little bit and trying to force the game instead of letting the game come to me.”
Part of his mentality stems from his inherent knowledge of the field. Buckner has his role in Ohio’s receiving unit down to a science, and he’s even studied other positions in order to better grasp how he can utilize himself.
Wide receivers coach Dwayne Dixon took note of Buckner’s willingness to learn. Dixon is both a mentor and a sort of father figure to Buckner and was crucial in fostering the confidence Buckner now wears on his sleeve.
Dixon is a tough-love coach. He’s not afraid to call out Buckner when he makes a mistake but also wants Buckner to keep his head up after those mistakes. The two both recognize the redshirt junior’s inherent talent, and Dixon helped develop a work ethic that spurred his development and confidence as a player.
“We feel like God's blessed him with enough talent to be here, feel like he should know what to do and then be able to go out and execute it with confidence,” Dixon said. “I think his confidence has grown since he was thrown into fires at an early age.”
Buckner isn’t the same player he was in his first start. He’s matured. The time he spent reflecting on his past helped him realize his own talent. It’s been a mental battle, but Buckner is winning.
“I just put a lot of work in mentally just to prepare for this moment and for the rest of my life and just manifesting how I want it to go,” Buckner said.