The first four games of Ohio State’s 2022 season haven’t gone the way anyone thought they would for Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
Smith-Njigba, who broke school records by catching 95 passes for 1,606 yards last season, has only four catches for 36 yards this season. One-third of the way through Ohio State’s regular season, Smith-Njigba has played only 38 snaps. Since suffering a hamstring injury in the first quarter of the Buckeyes’ season opener against Notre Dame, Smith-Njigba has missed two of the last three games, sitting out the second game of the year against Arkansas State and this past weekend’s game against Wisconsin after playing 23 snaps against Toledo.
Ryan Day acknowledges that hasn’t been easy for the junior wide receiver, who went into the season believing he could still perform “way better” than he did in his record-setting sophomore campaign. But Day is encouraging Smith-Njigba to keep his head up and reminding him that the Buckeyes could still play anywhere from eight to 11 more games this year.
“I know he's frustrated. But we're not as far away as we think. And if he just has the mindset of showing up every day and getting as much treatment as he can, take care of his body, this will be behind us soon, and we still got a lot of football to play,” Day said Tuesday.
“He's struggling, he wants to play. He's one of the more competitive players I've been around before. But rarely does it go the way you expect it to go. That's just life in general. So life's gonna throw adversity our way. And we control the response.”
When Smith-Njigba will return to game action remains uncertain. While Smith-Njigba has not been available to the media since he was initially injured against Notre Dame, Kirk Herbstreit indicated during ABC’s broadcast of Saturday night’s Ohio State-Wisconsin game that Smith-Njigba told him he thought it was likely he would also miss this week’s game against Rutgers.
“I talked with him before the game, asked him if he’s OK and how soon he might come back. He thinks he may rest it potentially another week. He just wants to be careful with it,” Herbstreit said. “He felt he came back a little bit too soon last week, maybe played a few too many plays and he felt it. That’s why he’s pulling himself back.”
Day said Tuesday, however, that Smith-Njigba wants to be back on the field as soon as possible.
“I don't think we want to move forward until we all feel really good about everything. But again, Jaxon still has a mindset of day-to-day,” Day said. “We're not going to put any kind of timetable on it. And just he and the training staff are going to work hard.”
Day said the decisions for Smith-Njigba to play against Toledo and not to play against Wisconsin were made by Smith-Njigba and Ohio State’s medical staff, and Day said he will continue to defer to them to determine the best course of action for when Smith-Njigba should return.
“We always refer to the trainers and to the doctors and then get the feedback from the player,” Day said. “And we try to do the best we can to keep them as safe as we can in those moments, and we'll continue to do that.”
In hindsight, there’s certainly reason to question whether Ohio State took an unnecessary risk by playing Smith-Njigba against Toledo, especially if he ends up missing multiple conference games. Presumably, Smith-Njigba and the medical staff will want to be extra cautious before he returns to action again to try to ensure he doesn’t suffer another setback in his recovery.
That said, Day replied “no” when asked if he regretted playing Smith-Njigba against the Rockets.
“You got to just trust in what you see in your evaluations and then go from there,” Day said.
Ohio State fans have become understandably skeptical when Day has expressed optimism about players returning from injuries as there have been several instances already this season where Day has said he thought a player would return that week only for that player to miss another game. Before each of the last two games, multiple defensive backs have been held out (Denzel Burke and Lathan Ransom against Wisconsin, Josh Proctor and Tanner McCalister against Toledo) even though they weren’t listed on the pregame availability report.
Day said Tuesday that Ohio State will begin determining status report designations closer to game time, rather than setting them on Thursday as it had been so far this season, in order to provide a more accurate list of players that will not play.
But while some Ohio State fans have feared Smith-Njigba could follow the lead of Nick Bosa in 2018 and shut things down to avoid risking any further injury, there have been no indications Smith-Njigba is even considering such a move. While Smith-Njigba is likely to be a first-round pick in the 2023 NFL draft no matter how much he plays this season, all indications are Smith-Njigba wants to be back on the field as soon as he feels fully healthy so he can help Ohio State chase its goal of winning a national championship.
“This will be behind him soon, and he'll be stronger for it,” Day said.
Kills me that I havent been out there yet. I know God has a bigger plan! Ill be back sooner than later.I know my brothers gonna keep handling business! Love yall Go Bucks— JSN (@jaxon_smith1) September 26, 2022
As for other players who missed the Wisconsin game with injuries, Day said Tuesday he is hoping Burke, Ransom and Cameron Brown will all be available to play in Ohio State’s secondary against Rutgers this weekend. Sophomore cornerback Jordan Hancock, however, is expected to miss his fifth consecutive game to start the season as he continues to recover from what Day described last week as a “significant” injury he suffered during preseason camp.