There aren’t many wide receiver talents across the country that can share a field with Garrett Wilson and cause the preseason AP All-American to question whether or not he is still the top dog.
Ohio State sophomore wideout Jaxon Smith-Njigba falls into that category though, as the former five-star prospect in the class of 2020 has not only garnered superlative praise from Wilson, but even precipitated a position switch that will see him replace the Buckeyes’ star at slot receiver in 2021.
“Jaxon is as good as I’ve ever seen, probably the best I’ve ever seen,” Wilson said Wednesday. “Jaxon is the most natural athlete I’ve ever seen.”
Along with Wilson moving outside to clear room for the Rockwall, Texas, native, Smith-Njigba’s emergence as a starter in just his second season also likely expedited the process of former top-100 overall prospect Jameson Williams’ transfer to Alabama this offseason.
Wilson said the decision for him to move back outside after a prolific 2020 season in the slot was made solely to put “all three of our best players on the field at the same time,” and given the names and recruiting stars boasted by the members of Brian Hartline’s position room, that statement speaks volumes about the program’s expectations for Smith-Njigba this year and beyond.
"Jaxon, I mean he's everything and then some, for sure."– Junior wide receiver Garrett Wilson
“Being like I am, I’m one of the people that, I feel like I’m the best on the field every time,” Wilson said. “I saw Jaxon for the time I was like, ‘OK.’ Jaxon, I mean he’s everything and then some, for sure.”
All that hype might cause one to forget that, even after a highlight-reel toe-tap touchdown at the back of the end zone in his very first game in scarlet and gray, Smith-Njigba had far from a breakout campaign as a freshman. Smith-Njigba caught just 10 passes for 49 yards on the season, a far cry from Wilson’s own marks of 30 snags for 432 yards in 2019.
Smith-Njigba’s lack of high-end production was no doubt due in part to the shortened season and lack of a proper build-up to the year because of COVID-19, but in 2021 he’ll figure to have a true introduction to the college football world, even with an inexperienced quarterback under center for the Buckeyes.
“He’s a rare talent also,” senior wide receiver Chris Olave said. “He’s in the slot, slippery in the slot, and he has that sneaky speed. He made that jump, especially from year one going into year two. I can’t wait to watch him, too. He’s a starter for us now, so taking that amount of snaps jump. He’s gonna have a lot more snaps, a lot more balls in his hand. So it’s gonna be funny watching him.”
Stealing touches away from Wilson and Olave will still be a difficult task, considering the pair combined to bring in nearly 60 percent of the Ohio State offense’s completions last season. However, Smith-Njigba knows that the attention opposing defenses place on that duo could open up opportunities for him over the middle of the field.
“Looking forward to my role, just bringing energy, and when the focus is on those two talented guys outside, then I can make some room and spread the field out and make plays,” Smith-Njigba said.
The slot receiver has played no small role in the Ohio State offense in recent years though. Wilson caught 43 passes a season ago, second only to Olave, and Buckeyes’ career receptions leader K.J. Hill caught a team-high 53 in 2019 and 70 the year prior.
Having put up video game statistics in a pass-happy Texas high school football landscape though, there might not be a target count too high for Smith-Njigba to handle.
“It’s a big role. I accept it and I’m ready for it,” Smith-Njigba said. “It’s a big role in the offense and I just gotta get prepared and ready for it, which I feel like I am.”
Smith-Njigba went as far as to say he has the best hands of all the Buckeyes’ wideouts, a bold claim given the competition, but Hartline preferred to emphasize a different aspect to the sophomore’s game when discussing what sets Smith-Njigba apart.
At 6-foot-tall, 198 pounds, Smith-Njigba has proven more than capable as a run blocker, Hartline said.
“I would say his dominant presence in the run game through spring has been really good,” Hartline said. “That’s got to continue. And then again, I think he does a really good job spatially of finding spaces and playing the ball.”
His acumen in that element of the offense is particularly impressive given that Smith-Njigba readily admitted he didn’t block much at all in high school.
“I just put emphasis on everything that I do, so I take everything with pride,” Smith-Njigba said. “If they tell me to block a guy, then I’m gonna try to do my best to do that. Run a route, I’m gonna try to do my best to do that. So I’m just focused on trying to go hard every play.”
In the event that Smith-Njigba is unsatisfied with his impact in either the passing or running game for the Buckeyes in 2021, he may have another chance to change games for Ohio State with a key role on special teams.
Wilson and Smith-Njigba have been splitting reps at punt returner in the preseason, and although the latter accrued just 11 yards on three returns a season ago, he might just end up special teams coordinator Parker Fleming’s top option at that spot this year.
“Any time I can get the ball in my hands – it’s a limited opportunity of course because we got so many great players – but just being back there and getting the ball in my hands, I like it like that,” Smith-Njigba said. “It’s just another opportunity to make a play. I’m definitely looking forward to catching some punt returns.”
It appears Ohio State is doing everything in its power to get the ball in Smith-Njigba’s hands this season. The question remains what he’ll be able to do with those opportunities when they come his way.