Never once did Garrett Wilson make it sound like he had a problem with shifting to slot receiver. Brian Hartline had visions of the smooth-moving, 6-foot ballhawk causing problems with his adept “spacial awareness,” so a year ago he made the unexpected decision to have Wilson move inside. It worked to the tune of the Texan recording 43 catches, 723 yards and six touchdowns in eight games last season to give him second-team All-American honors by the FWAA.
A year later, Wilson is going back to the outside full-time. Again, it wasn’t his idea, and again, he doesn’t have an issue with it.
“Whenever they proposed it to me, I was cool with that 100 percent,” Wilson said on Thursday. “I understood. It is what it is.”
Wilson sees his time spent outside as beneficial for his development. And he also sees it as beneficial to Ohio State as a whole. As he put it, “we've just got some dawgs in the Zone 6 room,” and he thinks this is a decision that helps to “get all the dudes out there as best as we could.”
A return to the outside for Wilson shouldn’t notably alter his production. He, like Chris Olave, would see ample targets from whoever takes snaps at quarterback regardless of where he lines up. Wilson going back to X-receiver might, in fact, have more to say about – and more impact on – another guy: Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
The 6-foot, 197-pound sophomore wideout has a clear path to the field and, more importantly, the starting lineup in 2021.
Smith-Njigba backed up Wilson in the slot last fall, catching 10 passes for 49 yards and a touchdown across 163 snaps in the seven games he played. Jameson Williams, who started on the outside and who appears likely to move into a backup role behind Olave or Wilson, was on the field for nearly twice as many snaps. If Smith-Njigba secures the starting slot receiver spot he appears destined for, he’ll see both his opportunities to catch passes and time on the field rise significantly. He’s already running with the first-team offense – with Wilson and Olave outside of him – during practice.
“I think that he had a good year last year, but now he's got to take the next step,” head coach Ryan Day said on Monday. “We wanted him to be in the mix with the first group, and he can do so many great things. It just needs to be more consistent. But we're excited about this year. He's had a good, solid spring. He needs to now have a great summer so he can have a great preseason going into the year. But he flashed. He made some really nice catches today. I think he's really coming on. He’s done a nice job blocking on the perimeter, which is huge for us. That was a huge emphasis for us coming off of last year that we've got to improve on. Excited where it goes. We're hoping that he takes the next step.”
This spring hasn’t been flawless for Smith-Njigba.
He came “hot,” wide receivers coach Brian Hartline said, then had a “day maybe where he had to catch his breath.” No surprise for somebody so young.
“He's been on fire since,” Hartline said. “I think he's doing a great job. I think that he may be our best blocker in the room. His blocking on the perimeter, his desire, his physicality is much-needed in our room. He's probably the best one at it.”
If he can block the way Ohio State wants, then it’ll be hard to find any reason to keep him off the field much longer.
Smith-Njigba arrived in Columbus with a five-star pedigree after tearing up Texas as a senior, accruing 104 catches for 2,094 yards and 35 touchdowns to become the Texas 6A State Player of the Year. Because he performed so well in the highest level of high school football in the Longhorn State, he was viewed as somebody who might come in and find a spot in Hartline’s rotation immediately.
In a sense, that’s what happened. His snap count was the fourth-highest among wide receivers on the team and his 10 receptions ranked fifth among Ohio State players.
“Just going out there and just getting a feel,” Smith-Njigba said. “I know we only played seven games, but just going out there, it just helped me just to see what it's like. Didn't get the atmosphere and a lot of things that I wanted, but just going out there and competing, it helped a lot.”
But he didn’t experience the offseason he intended. Smith-Njigba had enrolled in January 2020 to give himself an eight-month runway that would allow him to take off in Week 1. Less than three months later, he left campus to return home when Ohio State paused before eventually cancelling spring camp due to coronavirus just days after getting underway.
“Last spring, it was hard for us,” Smith-Njigba said. “It was hard to develop. I didn't get to develop as much because I'm not running routes and catching balls every day like I did this spring. This spring was real crucial, and it was big for us. Big for me.”
Ohio State saw glimpses of what Smith-Njigba is capable of doing as a true freshman. He caught double-digit passes, including a 5-yard touchdown that was objectively the most impressive play made by a Buckeye last season.
In 2021, especially with Wilson moving over to open up a clean path to the field, the second-year wideout might be in line to see his collegiate career take off.
“It's been a great spring for him,” Hartline said. “I think he's one of those guys that definitely helped take a step.”