Jaxon Smith-Njigba turned the corner out of the locker room, passing through the chain-link gate and onto the brown track that surrounds Jerry Comalander Stadium’s AstroTurf.
Just three days after sustaining a sprained ankle at an All-American Bowl practice to kick off the new year, Smith-Njigba clings to a pair of silver crutches, most of his weight bearing down on them as he hobbles over to the playing surface to watch his teammates warm up on the San Antonio field.
After putting up gaudy numbers as a high school senior and drawing praise from national recruiting analysts as the best among the best during these practices, those crutches became the only things that slowed down the star receiver over the past three years – and especially over the past six months, during which he proved he was one of the best receivers in the recruiting class of 2020.
And one who knows it.
“Don’t get me wrong, I do think I’m the best in America at what I do,” Smith-Njigba told Eleven Warriors on that field in January. “I think I’m the best, but I just try to stay level-headed.”
The born-and-bred Texan, his family and his friends used to gather around a TV to watch this game, with Smith-Njigba pointing at the NBC telecast to highlight some of his favorites like Chris Warren, Jadon Haselwood and Garrett Wilson, the one whose path he would eventually follow from Texas to Ohio State.
But instead of playing in this game at the Alamodome, the Texas Gatorade Player of the Year was relegated to watching from the sidelines.
Ironically, those crutches and that injury gave him the only real break he’s gotten from August to January, too.
Rockwall High School’s season began with a 66-59 loss on Aug. 30 yet culminated in a trip to the Class 6A state semifinals, with postseason games along the way at both the Dallas Cowboys’ home stadium and practice facility. (AT&T Stadium and the Ford Center at the Star, where just six months prior, he was the most productive pass-catcher at The Opening Finals with 23 catches and four touchdowns as a last-minute replacement for another receiver who had elected to drop out of the competition.)
In between the first and last game is when Smith-Njigba cemented his national star turn, crescendoing a rise from being a rare freshman starter at Rockwall to placing himself permanently into the Texas football record books.
Yes, he was already a star-in-the-making following wildly productive sophomore and junior seasons in which he caught 81 passes for 1,299 yards and nine touchdowns and then 97 passes for 1,828 yards and 20 touchdowns, respectively.
But what followed was an even more insane stat line as a senior, one that skyrocketed him from being well-known among Buckeye recruiting circles to being a full-blown national sensation behind numbers that should be followed with exclamation points. Ryan Day labeling it “one of the better (seasons) I’ve seen in a long time.”
109 catches, 2,161 yards, 34 touchdowns
In just one season. In the most competitive state for high school football. In the highest level of the state’s competition.
Smith-Njigba finished his high school career with the third-most career receiving yards (5,414), third-most single-season touchdowns and sixth-most single-season receiving yards in Texas state history.
His senior season is when the spotlight turned even brighter on Smith-Njigba, with his explosive releases off the line putting corners on their backs and silly, he-made-that-look-easy one-handed catches becoming the norm.
During all this time, Smith-Njigba admits his personal life got a bit chaotic, the added attention that’s accompanied his rise often making him have to take a step back from everything. Sometimes a deep breath and a pause is necessary “to take it all in,” he says.
“It’s been hectic with people just coming to the house, asking for stuff,” Smith-Njigba said. “I’m, of course, willing to do it because I’m grateful for all that stuff. It comes with more attention, and it’s just gonna rise from here so I’m getting used to it now.
“I really don’t try to think about those things – all the media stuff. I love it, of course. I mean, who doesn’t love it? But when it’s time for me to put the helmet on and the jersey on, all that stuff goes away, and I’m back to being me, myself and I, and I’m back to doing what I do.”
His rise has been quite remarkable, and he believes it started when he was young, a working mentality – “a dog mentality,” he calls it – that formed because he didn’t feel like much respect was put on his name.
“Coming into high school football, I felt like I was the underdog,” said Smith-Njigba, whose composite recruiting ranking hovered near the 300's before his junior season but jumped all the way up to No. 28. “People wanna speak on rankings and all that, but I did feel like the underdog. But I feel like I proved myself so much from the time I started to the time I’m about to end.”
He credits a lot of that underdog mentality and competitive nature to how he was raised, noting that his dad, Maada Smith-Njigba, and his older brother, Canaan Smith, are on the front lines of keeping him grounded and humble.
“My brother and my dad will always let me know I’m nothing,” Smith-Njigba says with a smirk, following up by clarifying it’s all said with love. “You still got a lot more work left to go, and I believe that. So I just think about them and think about how I was raised.
“My dad and my brother are very good at telling me what I’m doing wrong and what I need to fix. But they also tell me the good things, of course, and they’re proud of me. Always hearing all that helps keep me level-headed and also helps me keep going.”
Canaan is a minor league baseball player in the New York Yankees’ Class A organization, a left-handed hitter and right-handed throwing left fielder for the Charleston RiverDogs, who slashed .307/.405/.465 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) with 11 home runs, 32 doubles and 74 RBI in 124 games last summer en route to multiple minor league All-Star awards.
Canaan is one of the Yankees’ top prospects in their farm system after he was selected in the fourth round of the 2017 MLB draft, and in the past two-and-a-half years, he’s been a blessing for Jaxon to bounce questions off of – never forgetting to let him know who’s boss, obviously.
“Oh, he’s always talking mad smack like he’s the best in the family; the best athlete in the family,” Smith-Njigba said. “He’ll just be like, ‘You need to work on this; you need to work on that.’ Just giving me tips.
“He’s just telling me how professionals move and how they think. It’s actually given me a lot of help in just my demeanor to the game; just coming in working hard. This is your job. You gotta do this, you gotta do that. Having him is a huge help for me because he’s been through it. He’s been through the ups and down, and it’s just made him better. And I know I’m gonna experience some of the things he’s experienced, so it helps me a lot.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I do think I’m the best in America at what I do.”– Ohio State receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba
Just like fellow receiver Gee Scott Jr. enters the program with a background in professional mentorship from Seattle Seahawks players, and like Scott, Paris Johnson Jr. – and, assuredly, many others in the class of 2020 – come to Ohio State with goals of reaching the NFL and earning generational wealth, so too does Smith-Njigba.
“I worked for all this, and I’m trying to retire my family,” he says.
Now he has that chance, and he’ll be doing it as a monumental part of the Buckeyes' heralded 2020 receiver class – one that has a mission of sharing the same title that Ohio State’s defensive backs claim: “Best in America.”
“Probably best ever, too,” Smith-Njigba said.
Asked about leaving a legacy as the best receivers class in Ohio State history, Smith-Njigba said that Brian Hartline and assistant receivers coach Keenan Bailey set the standard.
“Oh, man,” Smith-Njigba said. “That’s what they told us: ‘Y’all are coming in to be the best ever and set a statement.’ They implanted it. To set a statement on the entire university and the entire country like, ‘Y’all are the best group,’ and we’re gonna put in the work. We’re not only gonna be the best receivers. We’re gonna be the best, hardest workers in America. That’s what we love. That’s why we chose Ohio State, and that’s what we’re gonna do.”
Hartline has already talked to each individual receiver about what their roles will be, with Scott being the physical, “one-on-one island type of guy,” Smith-Njigba says. Mookie Cooper is the quickest, most elusive and explosive with the ball in his hands, and Julian Fleming is the nation’s No. 1-ranked receiver in the class and brings just about every trait you would want at the position.
In a class packed with talented, multi-dimensional receivers across the country, Smith-Njigba is one of the few who can rival Fleming’s skill set, and he may even be a more suitable candidate to make an immediate impact in Columbus. Smith-Njigba says he’ll be working out of both the H (slot receiver) and Z positions, comfortable with both as he flipped back and forth from inside to outside at Rockwall.
During the early signing period, Hartline said that Smith-Njigba is not a player with any weaknesses in his game, as part of several minutes of praise that he showered on him in a December press conference.
Hartline set the bar pretty high with his expectations, but it’s nothing new to the young receiver. He’s embracing the ceiling that was set forth from guys like Michael Thomas, of whom Smith-Njigba says “set the standard, and we wanna pass that standard.”
Smith-Njigba now has the chance to make an impression during spring camp and show he deserves to get on the field. That’s the next step in this process. But it certainly wasn’t the first.
“It’s a big rise. I love my journey. I love the process,” Smith-Njigba said. “I wouldn’t trade my process or journey for anyone, so I’m happy with where I’m at and where I was. Still got a long way to go. I’m not even close. The potential’s through the roof. I’ve just gotta go in, go work, put my head down. I know that, and that’s what I’ll do.”