Jaxon Smith-Njigba Stepping into Feature Role As Buckeyes’ Unquestioned Top Wide Receiver in Rose Bowl

By Griffin Strom on December 30, 2021 at 8:35 am
Jaxon Smith-Njigba

One game into the 2021 season, the pecking order among Ohio State’s wide receiver corps seemed firmly entrenched.

Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson were a cut above, and despite his five-star talent and obvious potential, Jaxon Smith-Njigba was still a rung below. Something didn’t quite click between the second-year wideout and new starting quarterback C.J. Stroud in the season opener, as the pair connected just twice for a total of 12 yards against Minnesota. 

Two days before the final game of the season, that hierarchy has changed entirely.

Smith-Njigba had already proven himself well worthy of the status of his more established counterparts during the regular season, but following Olave and Wilson’s decision to opt out of the Rose Bowl, the Buckeyes’ star slot receiver has quickly become the foremost pass-catching threat on the roster.

“I always wanted to be in this position,” Smith-Njigba said Wednesday. “So it's just great that it's happening. I appreciate Chris and Garrett for allowing me to follow them and them taking me in the right direction. So I appreciate that.”

Not including touchdowns, in which Olave (13) and Wilson (12) both doubled Smith-Njigba’s total of six in the regular season, the sophomore actually outperformed the Buckeyes’ outside receiving duo by several measures in 2021. Smith-Njigba hauled in 80 passes in Ohio State’s first 12 games this season, 10 more than Wilson and 15 more than Olave, and his 1,259 receiving yards are more than 200 better than either of the two aforementioned wideouts.

With 15 catches against Nebraska in a 240-yard effort on Nov. 6, Smith-Njigba set Ohio State’s single-game receptions record, and his catch and yardage totals are both third-best in Ohio State history for a single season. If he has more than 10 catches and 176 yards in the Rose Bowl, Smith-Njigba would become the Buckeyes’ single-season record-holder in both categories, and neither of those marks are out of the question.

Smith-Njigba is averaging 11.3 receptions and 152.8 yards per game in Ohio State’s last four contests leading into the Rose Bowl, and he’s had at least nine catches and 105 yards in each of those games. In the three previous games, Smith-Njigba’s yardage totals read 97, 99 and 103.

The Rockwall, Texas, native will no longer have to compete with Olave and Wilson for touches, but being the top option at wide receiver comes with a heightened level of attention from opposing defenses and an increased number of responsibilities for Smith-Njigba.

“Just being there, like everybody got their eyes on you,” Smith-Njigba said. “So you've got to show up every day, and you've got to be a leader. (Olave) was more of an I'm going to show you how to do it. So I appreciate that from him for sure.”

Smith-Njigba said he’s a natural leader and well accustomed to the duties one must take on in such a role because of his high school career. The five-star recruit said he knew Olave and Wilson’s college careers were coming to an end after this season, and he now has the experience to follow in their footsteps as a leader.

“I just felt like I knew Chris and Garrett were leaving, and I feel like we needed someone to step up and be more of a vocal person,” Smith-Njigba said. “I've been here for a few years. I played all last season. So I got the most experience. I can talk to those guys, but they're great. They know what to do. I just helped build them up.”

Now Smith-Njigba will have to help a new crop of wideouts get up to speed much in the same way Olave and Wilson helped him. Julian Fleming, Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka – all top-100 overall recruits – have all the requisite talent on paper, but will now be tasked with putting it all together when given the same opportunity Smith-Njigba got to begin the 2021 campaign.

“I know they're very excited to get this opportunity. I know, when I got my first start, how I felt,” Smith-Njigba said. “You've just got something to prove, ready to prove it. I can see it in those guys' faces. I know they're excited. I'm excited for them. It's going to be a good one.”

Smith-Njigba said he isn’t feeling any extra pressure to perform despite the inevitably higher expectations that will follow him into 2022. Instead, the 6-foot, 198-pound wideout is trying to remain in the moment and avoid getting caught up in any hype.

“I'm just seizing every opportunity that comes my way,” Smith-Njigba said. “Just staying locked in and focused. Because I know I'll get more opportunities. But you know, it's just all about staying in the moment and seizing those opportunities, for sure.”

The current task at hand for the Buckeyes may not be a chance at a championship, but Smith-Njigba said the Rose Bowl matchup with Utah still comes with high stakes.

For the sake of building momentum going into the 2022 offseason, a Rose Bowl win and impressive performance could go a long way for the Buckeyes, especially for their new-look receiving corps.

“Everybody's happy to be here. Everybody wants to win,” Smith-Njigba said. “It's a must-win for us. That's what's in our head. We've got to win this game, especially rolling into next year with Notre Dame game one. So it's a big game for us. It's a must win for sure.”

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