One game into the season, two starters on Ohio State’s offense are already dealing with injuries.
Star wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba suffered a hamstring injury in the first quarter of Ohio State’s 21-10 win over Notre Dame that ultimately forced him to leave the game after one series in the third quarter. After the game, starting center Luke Wypler was seen leaving Ohio Stadium in a walking boot.
Ryan Day said Tuesday that neither player’s injury is expected to lead to a long-term absence – but the Buckeyes are preparing contingency plans in the event that either player misses time.
While Day said Monday on Big Ten Network he is hopeful Smith-Njigba will be able to play this Saturday against Arkansas State, he said Tuesday that the Buckeyes will be careful not to rush him back if he is not 100 percent healthy.
“I leave it up to the doctors and the medical professionals, but yeah, we will not bring him back if there's any risk of him getting hurt further for the future,” Day said. “We'll make sure he's 100% before we put him back in the game.”
Day said Smith-Njigba will be evaluated over the course of the week and that a decision on whether he will play Saturday won’t be made until later in the week. If the medical staff clears Smith-Njigba to play, though, Day said he will trust the junior receiver to let the coaches know whether he feels he can play up to his full ability or whether it would be best for him to rest.
“When we have a more experienced guy who's played, you can kind of trust them a little bit to give you some feedback, if it's one of those things we're trying to figure out,” Day said. “But at the end of the day, it comes down to the doctors and the trainers.”
Realistically, the Buckeyes shouldn’t need Smith-Njigba to have a successful day on offense this week, considering Arkansas State allowed the second-most yards per game of any team in the country last season. Day said the Buckeyes will have to adjust if he can’t play, though, as he described Smith-Njigba as a player who “makes everybody else on the field better.”
“He’s just such an impact player,” Day said. “As you saw last year, he can turn a five-yard completion into whatever. He’s just so explosive, and because of that, when you have a playmaker like that on the perimeter, it just has such an impact on the entire game schematically across the board. So yeah, I mean, that's just the impact he makes, because he's such a great player.”
Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud certainly wants to have Smith-Njigba, who he said he considers to be the best player on the team, in the lineup on Saturday. But he also wants Smith-Njigba to be careful not to rush back into action too quickly.
“You don't want to damage yourself more than you have, so you miss more weeks,” Stroud said. “If we needed him that bad (to beat Notre Dame), Jaxon would have played. I know that he would have. But I mean, a hamstring’s something you don't play with. I had a hamstring my freshman year and you can’t really run, for real. And that's 50% of his game.”
While Stroud and the Buckeyes had fewer passing yards against Notre Dame than they had in all but one game last season (Tulsa) with Smith-Njigba sidelined, Stroud was proud of the way the Buckeyes overcame his absence to get a win over a top-five opponent. And he’s confident Ohio State’s other receivers will step up if Smith-Njigba has to miss more time.
“(Xavier Johnson) will step up, Emeka (Egbuka) again, Marvin (Harrison Jr.) again. (Jayden Ballard) will have a good game again. And the younger dudes we’re calling in to step up,” Stroud said. “So it's an opportunity for everybody to have a good game and try to go out there and dominate, try to compete.”
As for Wypler, Day did not express much concern about the Ohio State center’s injury on Tuesday. Wypler was able to play every snap of the game against Notre Dame, and it’s unclear whether Wypler will need to miss any time.
“When you come out of those physical games like that, there's always bumps and bruises and things that we want to keep an eye on,” Day said. “But nothing long-term there.”
Like with Smith-Njigba, though, Ohio State has reason to be cautious this week if Wypler is anything less than 100 percent healthy. Given that, the Buckeyes are considering two options for if Wypler can’t play: Moving Matt Jones to center and starting Enokk Vimahi at right guard, or starting Jakob James at center while keeping Jones at right guard.
Vimahi entered the game on Ohio State’s final touchdown drive against Notre Dame after Jones had to leave the game for a few plays, and Day was impressed by Vimahi’s performance against the Fighting Irish, which might well make him the next man up for the Buckeyes to get their top five healthy offensive linemen on the field.
“When Matt went down, Enokk came in and actually gave us some good plays there. We had a counter play where he came around, did a nice job and I think we picked up about eight or nine yards on that play,” Day said. “And so yeah, it'd be one of the two. We either move Matt to center and then move Enokk over to guard or you bring Jakob in.”
The absence of Wypler, who Stroud described Tuesday as his “vice president” when it comes to identifying defenses at the line of scrimmage, would be another thing Ohio State’s quarterback would need to adapt to. But he says he has faith in either Jones or James to get the job done if one of them has to fill in at center.
“We've worked these types of scenarios in practice where Luke would step out and Matt would come in or Jakob would come in and I trust in those guys, too,” Stroud said. “Definitely gotta make some adjustments to that because Luke is so pivotal in his way to see defenses and see fronts and different things like that. So definitely will be an adjustment, but nothing crazy.”
Another key player on offense currently dealing with an injury is Julian Fleming, who was viewed as a potential starter at wide receiver going into the Notre Dame game but ended up being unable to play after he was listed as a game-time decision. Day said Fleming “tweaked something leading up to the game” – he appeared to be dealing with a lower-body injury during warmups – but Day expressed optimism Fleming would be able to play this weekend, which would give the Buckeyes another candidate to start at wide receiver against Arkansas State if Smith-Njigba can’t go.
“He went through warmups (before the Notre Dame game) and he was close (to being able to play). And it tore his heart out not to be in this game. Had an unbelievable offseason, did a really good job this preseason,” Day said. “So we're hoping to have him back on Saturday.”