Peeking inside the crowded receiver room and directing the spotlight on Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
For several years now, commentators have been declaring the Ohio State wide receiver room to be a crowded place. During the pass-happy 2018 season, there seemed to be enough passes to go around. Six wide receivers caught more than 20 balls: Parris Campbell (90), K.J. Hill (70), Johnnie Dixon (42), Terry McLaurin (35), Austin Mack (26), Benjamin Victor (21). And, as we well know, a guy named Chris Olave came around at the end of the season to pull in 12 passes and score three touchdowns.
Campbell, Dixon, and McLaurin had moved on to the NFL and weren’t on the great 2019 team led by Justin Fields. But there was still plenty of talent to throw to. Again, the passes were well-distributed: Hill caught (57), Olave (48), Victor (35), freshman Garrett Wilson (30), and Mack (27). Another newcomer on that squad was Jameson Williams, who caught six passes.
In the weird season that was 2020, nearly all of the receptions were made by Olave (48) or Wilson (43). Julian Fleming, the No. 1 wide receiver in the 2020 class, caught seven passes for 74 yards, and the other freshman receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba had 10 receptions for only 49 yards. Second-year player Williams caught nine for 154 yards (17.1 yard average) and two touchdowns.
When Olave announced that he would return for a surprise fourth season at OSU, two receiver spots were set with him and Wilson. The third spot was up for grabs. Fleming, Williams, and Smith-Njigba all would vie for it, and the Buckeyes also brought in a trio of top-100 recruits at wide receiver: Emeka Egbuka (No. 1 receiver, No. 10 overall), Marvin Harrison Jr. (No. 14 and No. 97), and Jayden Ballard (No. 15 and No. 99). The room was full again.
By the time of the Buckeye spring game, it was clear that Smith-Njigba had the edge for that last starting position. Williams, in his third year, saw the writing on the wall and transferred to Alabama. The move has paid off for him as he has 17 catches for 364 yards and three touchdowns, good enough for second on the Tide in receptions and first in receiving yardage.
And, sure enough, Smith-Njigba has emerged as the third receiver, starting all five games so far. So who is he?
Not nearly so heralded in high school as his classmate Fleming, Smith-Njigba showed the OSU coaches several positives that made them offer him early. For one, he played for a Rockwall, Tex., high school team that competed in the highest Texas class (6A) in the tough — and very competitive — Dallas-Ft. Worth area.
If he could star there (and he did), the prospect for success at the next level was strong. Second, Smith-Njigba has good size, 6-foot-1 and right around 200 pounds. If you’ve noticed, Ohio State wideouts tend to be bigger than average, with good hands; they can fight with a defender for the ball and come down with it.
Smith-Njigba’s time in the 40-yard-dash is not so spectacular as Fleming’s or Williams’s (or even Olave’s) but is a respectable 4.59. Most importantly, perhaps, Smith-Njigba wanted to play for the Buckeyes, committing in November 2018, well before Julian Fleming.
After sending Williams (now Alabama’s top receiver) to the transfer portal and fending off the No. 1 receiver in both the 2020 and 2021 recruiting classes for the job, how has he done on the field? In a word — great! Yes, he dropped a ball that he should have handled during the Rutgers game, but, overall, Smith-Njigba has made himself an option just as attractive for C.J. Stroud as Olave and Wilson are.
In the five games that he’s played so far this season, Smith-Njigba has accounted for 349 yards on his 18 receptions, for a very handsome 19.4 yards per catch average. He’s also scored three touchdowns.
Maybe not as adept on sideline routes as Olave (after all, who is?), Smith-Njigba, nonetheless, can run all of the routes: sideline, crossing patterns over the middle, sitting down in space in the middle of a zone, deep go routes. His quick moves gain him separation from the defender (often a safety) covering him, and his size affords the quarterback a good target.
Like Olave and Wilson, Smith-Njigba is sure-handed, and in the first half of the 2021 season, we’ve come to expect him to pull in everything anywhere near him. He usually does. For me, Smith-Njigba is a very pleasant surprise. We all knew all about Olave and Wilson, but when they move on to the pros next year, Smith-Njigba will become the premier Buckeye receiver, and it looks as though he’ll be up to the task.
If position coach Brian Hartline’s first-rate recruiting continues, it’s going to be hard to keep all of these guys in the fold. As this season moves along, the Bucks need to make an effort to involve Fleming and the three freshman wideouts in the offense (when healthy of course), especially when the game’s outcome is still in doubt.
I know that with a new, inexperienced quarterback like Stroud (or whoever is in there), there’s a good case to be made for giving him experienced, veteran receivers. But, as Stroud matures and feels more comfortable with his game, let’s see Fleming, Egbuka, Harrison Jr., and Ballard. It’s never too early to think ahead to next year.