The college football world caught a glimpse last year of what Jaxon Smith-Njigba was capable of doing, and it only took one game.
Buckeye quarterback Justin Fields found the freshman receiver running in the back of the end zone in last year’s opener at Nebraska. The pass was completed but it looked to be well out of bounds — until the television cameras got a better look at it and showed that he had somehow gotten a foot inbounds for the touchdown.
Even though Smith-Njigba only finished the year with 10 catches for 49 yards, that catch alone showed everyone that he had something special.
That has only become more evident over the course of the last year, which is why he is now the Buckeyes’ No. 1 slot receiver, moving future first-round draft pick Garrett Wilson from the slot to outside.
And if you’re concerned about the slot position now with Wilson no longer there, don’t be.
“Oh, yeah. Jaxon’s as good as I’ve ever seen,” Wilson said this week when asked if the slot was still in good hands. “Probably the best I’ve ever seen. So I ain’t gonna fake it, Jaxon is the most natural athlete I’ve ever seen. So, yeah, more than straight.”
The pandemic kept Wilson from putting up some ridiculous stats last year in the slot, and the presence of Wilson and Chris Olave will likely keep Smith-Njigba from going crazy statistically this year. But all together, these three are going to give defenses fits all year long.
Both Olave and Wilson can make a solid claim that they are the best receiver in the nation, but by the end of the season they may have some company.
“Being like I am, I’m one of the people that I feel like I’m the best on the field every time,” Wilson said. “I saw Jaxon for the first time, and I was like, ‘Okay.’ Jaxon, he’s everything and then some. That’s for sure.”
Smith-Njigba enrolled early for the Buckeyes as a true freshman and has met and exceeded essentially every task or metric put in front of him.
If you ask him, he will — as humbly as possible — tell you he has the best hands on the team. He will also begrudgingly tell you he has the best feet. Receivers coach Brian Hartline also said he was dominating with his run blocking.
People are about to really learn what the Buckeyes have known for a while now.
“Jaxon, he came in real good. He just had to adapt to the Buckeye culture,” Olave explained. “He’s a rare talent. Slippery in the slot and he has that sneaky speed. So he made that jump, especially from year one.
“It’s gonna be fun watching him.”
None of this is changing who Jaxon Smith-Njigba is, however. He’s not brash. He’s not a proclaimer. And when he hears about teammates like Garrett Wilson saying some pretty good things about him, he doesn’t just agree and move on.
“I mean, I love Garrett,” Smith-Njigba said. “I would say the same thing about him, honestly. He’s very natural himself, of course, as we’ve all seen. And I appreciate those words from him because I looked up to him and I love watching him. Who doesn’t love watching him? And so, yeah, I appreciate him.”
Over the last 10 years, the slot receiver has led the Buckeyes in receptions all but three seasons. The only times they didn’t were when Michael Thomas was leading the way in 2014 and 2015, and then last year when Chris Olave bested Garrett Wilson by seven catches.
Nobody is expecting Jaxon Smith-Njigba to lead the team in catches this year with Olave and Wilson on the outside, but that doesn’t mean the slot receiver spot is diminished. It’s still just as important as ever and could become a sizable advantage for the Buckeyes this year.
And it’s something that Smith-Njigba is looking forward to being a part of.
“It’s a big role. I accept it. I’m ready for it,” he said. “It’s a big role in the offense and I’ve just got to get prepared and be ready for it. Which I feel like I am.”