When Jaxon Smith-Njigba looks back on his final season at Ohio State now, he wishes he hadn’t initially attempted to return from his hamstring injury as quickly as he did.
After suffering the injury in Ohio State’s season opener against Notre Dame, Smith-Njigba twice returned to game action in the Buckeyes’ third game of the year against Toledo and seventh game of the season against Iowa. He played for only a portion of both of those games, however, before reaggravating his injury.
There would be no third return from his injury, as he eventually opted to shut things down before the start of the College Football Playoff after being told he would not be healthy enough to play even if Ohio State had advanced to the national championship game. To that end, Smith-Njigba says he didn’t feel fully healthy again until just two or three weeks ago, which is why he will not run the 40-yard dash during the wide receivers’ workout at the NFL Scouting Combine on Saturday.
In hindsight, Smith-Njigba believes he made a mistake trying to return to action as quickly as he did.
“Definitely wish I would have just been more patient, but I'm a competitor. Wanted to be out there,” Smith-Njigba said Friday during his first press conference since he suffered the injury. “Didn't know too much about hamstrings, never really dealt with one. So wish I had more information, wish I would have definitely dealt with it better.”
Smith-Njigba said it was hard for him to have to watch from the sidelines all season. He believes the Buckeyes “definitely would have won a national championship” if he had been healthy. But he’s had to put that disappointment behind him as he prepares now to begin his NFL career.
“Very frustrating last year. Never really had an injury that set me out for games or even practices or stuff like that,” Smith-Njigba said. “But I feel like I'm gonna come out a better person, better man, better player. So I'm definitely thankful. Just looking at it as a positive. And I think it will be beneficial for me at the end of the day.”
Smith-Njigba was proud of the way C.J. Stroud and Ohio State’s other wide receivers performed in his absence as the Buckeyes still had one of the nation’s most prolific offenses in 2022 despite being without Smith-Njigba, who was expected to be Stroud’s go-to target entering the season.
“I mean, just to see the maturity, the growth, and his play, his leadership, him being a captain, him using his voice, him using everything; his ability to bring people together is second to none, and it was awesome to see him play,” Smith-Njigba said of Stroud.
“As a receiving corps, just young guys stepping up and ready to play, due to coach Hartline and his training and what he gets done in the receiver room, they were ready and I knew it. I was happy for them, definitely.”
That said, Smith-Njigba is excited to get back on the field and remind everyone how good he is Saturday, when he plans to participate in every drill except the 40.
“I'm ready to show people what I can do,” Smith-Njigba said.
Despite being sidelined in 2022, Smith-Njigba’s confidence in himself is unwavering. Ohio State’s single-season record holder for both receptions and receiving yards, Smith-Njigba believes he should be the first wide receiver selected in this year’s draft.
“I just think my playmaking ability is second to none in this draft,” Smith-Njigba said. “I see myself as a top-five player, not just receiver. I see myself as a top-five player in this draft, just being able to make plays and given the opportunities. You throw me the ball seven to nine times, I can win you the game. And I think that speaks for itself.”
While there have been plenty of critics who questioned whether he truly wanted to return to play last season, Smith-Njigba says he’s never stopped working to be the best player he can be, and he’s looking forward to proving that at the next level, beginning at the combine this weekend.
“My mindset’s always stayed the same,” Smith-Njigba said. “I'm the best at what I do, and I'm definitely always ready to prove that at any point. And this is just another point that I’m ready to prove to them.”
“I'm ready to show people what I can do.”– Jaxon Smith-Nigba on returning to action at the NFL Scouting Combine
His former college quarterback will be among those telling NFL teams that they should draft Smith-Njigba.
“He’s a dog, go draft him,” Stroud said Friday. “And that's what I've been saying. He is one of my favorite people ever. I love him to death. He's just a blessing to have not only as a teammate, but as a friend. Most quarterback-friendly receiver I’ve ever had.”