Ohio State football: Jaxon Smith-Njigba moving out of the shadows for Buckeyes
There’s always been a bigger name.
When he entered Ohio State as part of the highly-regarded 2020 recruiting class, analysts gawked at a big-time, can’t-miss receiver who was sure to be on the field for the Buckeyes sooner rather than later.
But it wasn’t Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
It was Julian Fleming, the top receiver recruit in the class. A year and a half into his career in Columbus, Fleming has caught 9 passes.
Meanwhile, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson starred in Columbus in 2020. Olave seemed likely to head to the NFL, and maybe Smith-Njigba (who had 10 catches and 1 touchdown in 2020) would get his shot.
But no. Olave decided to stick around for another season, and Smith-Njigba seemed relagated to a backup role again. After all, because it’s Ohio State, another recruiting class of big-time high school stars had arrived. This time the freshman star was Emeka Egbuka. Behind 2 All-Americans and the top receiver recruit in the nation, Smith-Njigba would sit and wait. Again. Right?
Not this time. Egbuka has shown more immediate impact than Fleming, but mainly on kick returns, where his 34-yard average is one of the top marks in the nation. Jameson Williams headed off to Alabama, where he’s the Tide’s top receiver (27 catches, 510 yards, 5 TDs).
Wilson (31 receptions, 546 yards, 6 TDs) and Olave (30 receptions, 494 yards, 7 TDs) have been all that they were supposed to be. But there’s another OSU receiver in the Big Ten’s top 10 in receiving yards.
The forgotten man is forgotten no more, with 23 catches for 452 yards and 3 touchdowns. He’s been adept at complementing Olave’s outside work and Wilson’s middle-of-the-field abilities. While he’s 3rd on the team in receiving yards, he’s 8th in the Big Ten. Smith-Njigba is edging into the spotlight.
Most 15+ yard catches by Big Ten WRs
1. Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State – 16
2. Garrett Wilson, Ohio State – 14 pic.twitter.com/Eev7BQvEpl
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 10, 2021
The Texas high school product is simply a playmaker. Not as fast as some of the burners, and not as tall as the outside guys, the 6-0, 198-pound Smith-Njigba just makes catches. Early in the season, with the team in chaos, he stepped up. In OSU’s 35-28 loss to Oregon, he kept the Buckeyes in the game, snagging 7 passes for 145 yards and a pair of scores, including the one to bring OSU within a score in the fourth quarter.
Since then, he’s been steady, approaching 100 yards receiving against Akron and reaching it against Maryland. And if he’s still a little bit of a secret nationally, that decreases every day. Not that his teammates take him for granted.
“He’s a dawg,” said CJ Stroud after Smith-Njigba’s breakout game against Oregon. “He is the reason I’m here at Ohio State.”
During fall camp, Wilson said that Smith-Njigba was “probably the best I’ve ever seen” and also called him “the most natural athlete I’ve ever seen.”
It’s an interesting compliment since Smith-Njigba isn’t the only big-time athlete in his own family. His brother Canaan was a 4th-round draft pick of the New York Yankees in 2017, and was traded into the Pittsburgh Pirates organization in the Jameson Taillon trade in early 2021. Canaan had an excellent year for Pittsburgh’s AA affiliate in Altoona and finished 2021 on Pittsburgh’s AAA squad, one stop shy of the major leagues. He’s on Pittsburgh’s MLB.com list of top 30 minor league prospects.
If Canaan needs any tips on managing the waiting game until his time for stardom, he might call his little brother. Because things seem to be going pretty well for Jaxon now that he’s truly getting his chance.