LOS ANGELES — And a sophomore shall lead them.
Coming into this season, the expectations at wide receiver for the Buckeyes were that Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave would lead the passing game and that sophomore Jaxon Smith-Njigba would be a nice third option for new quarterback CJ Stroud.
Well, as far as third options go, Smith-Njigba has been an outstanding first choice.
Smith-Njigba led the Buckeyes in catches in five of their 12 games this season, which also gave him a team-high of 80 receptions and 1,259 yards. He had six 100-yard games on the season, including each of the last four games for Ohio State. In fact, over the Buckeyes’ last seven contests, Smith-Njigba is averaging 8.9 receptions and 130 yards per game with a low number of 97 yards against Penn State.
So while the Buckeyes are going to miss Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave as they opt out of Saturday’s Rose Bowl against Utah, CJ Stroud still has the guy he’s been relying on most the last half of this year. It will be up to OSU’s current go-to guy to not only get open, but lead the young receivers who now must step up and play like veterans.
Fortunately for the Buckeyes, Smith-Njigba has been preparing for this moment all season long.
“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 this week. “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.”
True freshman Marvin Harrison, Jr. and sophomore Julian Fleming are expected to step in for Wilson and Olave, while true freshman Emeka Egbuka will also get some time in the slot. It’s a lot of pressure on those three young players, but may be even more pressure on Smith-Njigba to both lead and produce.
Even when Wilson and Olave were playing, however, Smith-Njigba was still trying to lead by example because that’s just how he operates.
“I feel like I’ve been doing it,” he said. “I mean, it’s different of course, but I did it in high school before that. I feel like it’s just a natural thing I have.”
Almost everything Smith-Njigba does comes naturally. Not that he doesn’t work at it, but the responsibilities come easily to him. He is comfortable as a leader. He is also comfortable as a team spokesman, especially when breaking down the Buckeyes’ young receivers.
“Julian is real physical, very fast, very athletic, of course. Can make plays, very strong,” he said. “Marvin Harrison, he’s got great feet. He’s a great route runner, great hands. He’s got some size on him. Yeah, those are two good players. Emeka, he’s just very explosive, kind of a little bit like myself. Great routes, great hands. It’s going to be fun.”
Smith-Njigba has been in their shoes. In fact, even though he’s the veteran, he’s also in their shoes right now. He is still a sophomore, after all. He also remembers his first start when maybe not a lot was expected of him, but he still went out and did everything that was asked of him.
And he expects the same from everybody else on Saturday.
“I know they’re very excited to get this opportunity. I know, when I got my first start, how I felt,” he 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.”