Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave may have some company this season.
Sophomore wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba entered spring ball for the Buckeyes with high expectations for himself and from his coaches, and it sure sounds like he made good on most of those expectations this spring.
Smith-Njigba finished third among Ohio State wide receivers last season with 10 receptions, but those catches went for just 49 yards total. Granted, he did show up on every highlight show in America after the touchdown reception in his first game as a Buckeye, tapping his toes in the back of the end zone in the opener against Nebraska.
But he was far below the 50 receptions for Olave and 43 for Wilson. If plans come to fruition this year, perhaps there won’t be such a discrepancy between the two vets and the talented sophomore.
Wilson has moved from the slot he manned last year back outside this year, leaving Smith-Njigba as the starter in the slot for the Buckeyes. The team’s top slot receiver for Ohio State since Urban Meyer arrived back in 2012 has averaged 57 catches per season, leading the team in receptions each year except for 2014 and 2015 (Michael Thomas) and last year with Olave.
So yeah, big things are expected from Jaxon Smith-Njigba this year, which is one reason the coaches bumped him up to the ones this spring. They wanted to see him in action with the top group.
“I think that he had a good year last year but now he’s got to take the next step,” head coach Ryan Day said prior to the end of spring. “We wanted him to be in the mix with the first group and he can do so many great things. It just needs to be more consistent, but we’re excited about this year. He’s had a good, solid spring. He needs to now have a great summer so he can have a great preseason going into the year. But he flashed. He made some really nice catches today. I think he’s really coming on. He’s done a nice job blocking on the perimeter, which is huge for us. That was a huge emphasis coming off last year that we’ve got to improve on. So excited to see where it goes. And we’re hoping that he takes the next step.”
Smith-Njigba is a nice complement to Wilson and Olave because he’s essentially a mix of the two of them. He is comfortable over the middle of the field and can get yards after the catch, but he’s also got a great feel down the field and his awareness is special. He can do whatever Ohio State needs, he just needs more experience in order to make it happen.
“Jaxon has done a great job spring wise,” receivers coach Brian Hartline said last week. “I would say he knows he may have had one little dip in the middle of spring. But he kind of started out hot, had a day maybe where he had to catch his breath, and he’s been on fire since. I think he’s doing a great job. I think that he may be our best blocker in the room. His blocking on the perimeter, his desire, his physicality is much needed in our room. He’s probably the best one at it.”
Being in the slot, Smith-Njigba is going to find himself closer to the action than if he was out wide. As such, he’ll need to be a physical blocker because he could be facing corners, safeties, or linebackers. He also knows that if he doesn’t block, he doesn’t play.
“We can all catch the ball. Well, I know I can catch the ball,” Smith-Njigba said this spring. “I can run routes. So if I just add [blocking] to my game, it just makes me even better. Even a more all-around player, so that’s what I focus on. And I take pride in it. And I just try to do the best in whatever they ask me to do. I just try to do it to my full capability.”
Now that spring is over, performances will be assessed and plans will be made on what the next steps are for each player. For Smith-Njigba, he already knows what he’s going to be doing.
“By next fall, going into the summer, I’m just going to get bigger, faster, stronger,” he said. “Ready to go out there in the fall and just make plays. Blocking and receiving. Just getting open, catching the ball, doing whatever my team asks and whatever coach asks.”
With his skill set, there’s a lot his coaches can ask of him. One thing they won’t ask, however, is for him to change what he’s done to get to this point. Jaxon Smith-Njigba has approached everything the right way and it worked out last year. The expectations for this year are just a continuation of what has already been seen, and this spring was a great start.
“He’s a pleasure to coach. I love coaching him,” Hartline said. “But throughout spring in general, I’m always trying to rotate guys and get different feels with guys and get different rotations the best you can. It’s not always perfect, but you want to get different guys with different quarterbacks and you want a constant rotation the best you can just to change the people they’re going against defensively, change who they’re working with operationally offensively. So it’s been a great spring for him. I think he’s one of those guys that definitely helped take a step.”