Nothing has been said by Olave or Wilson about opting out of the Rose Bowl against Utah, but Smith-Njigba is preparing himself to be the leading man in the receivers room.
Columbus, OH – The questions fired at receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba mostly dealt with Ohio State’s 2022 season and how the certain departure of Chris Olave and all-but-expected departure of Garrett Wilson to the NFL would change his college football life forever.
But, wait a minute here, there’s a pretty important game called the Rose Bowl against Pac-12 champion and 11th-ranked Utah on New Year’s Day coming up.
What will the brave new world be like for Smith-Njigba on the floor of the 93,000-seat stadium if Olave and/or Wilson opt out to prepare for the pros?
One would expect Olave and Wilson would make their intentions known once the Buckeyes head to Pasadena the day after Christmas or the following day when they begin to practice.
The longer they keep their plans secret, the longer the Utes have to prepare for them. The delay tactic could be their parting gift to head coach Ryan Day if they do not play.
“I don’t know anything. It’s still up in the air,’’ Smith-Njigba said last Thursday. “I hope so – I sure hope so (that both will play).’’
If one or both players don’t play, expect Smith-Njigba, a slot man, to run with redshirt freshman Julian Fleming and true freshmen Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr.
Fleming was the No. 1-ranked receiver nationally in his high school class. Egbuka, who was the No. 8 overall player in his class last February, has flashed a little bit on kickoff returns this season. Harrison, a four-star recruit last February, has played in the fourth quarter of blowouts.
Sixth-ranked Ohio State (10-2) had its College Football Playoff chances blow up with a 42-27 spanking from Michigan the final game of the regular season.
The question: Will the team have any spunk left for a game that has nothing riding on it?
How will they respond the day after they see Michigan play in a CFP semifinal against Georgia knowing they could have been there?
“These last practices we’ve had a lot of energy – amazing energy,’’ Smith-Njigba said. “It’s going to be a big-time matchup, a fun game. This is a big opportunity and a blessing for us.’’
It’s also going to be an interesting look-see about what life after Olave and Wilson if both opt out of the Rose Bowl.
There’s no question those two have been the stars, but Smith-Njigba showed that he could have been the top receiver on any other team in the nation after catching 80 passes for 1,259 yards and six touchdowns.
Those aren’t third option numbers.
“I had some goals,’’ Smith-Njigba said. “I didn’t know how this year would turn out. I just try to go out there and play hard every day. I’m blessed to have the season that I had.’’
His finest games came in the showdowns:
Oregon: 7 catches, 145 yards, 2 scores.
Penn State: 6 catches, 97 yards.
Michigan State: 10 catches, 105 yards, 1 score.
Michigan: 11 catches, 127 yards, 1 score.
Then there was the tightly played victory at Nebraska when Smith-Njigba caught a single-game team record 15 passes for 240 yards and one touchdown.
So, what will his life be like after Olave and Wilson?
“Definitely different,’’ Smith-Njigba said. “I’ll have to go to a different level mentally and physically. A lot of people will be watching me and I have to set the example.’’
It also means that he’ll be the leader in the receivers room. The Buckeyes always will be a throw-first team under Day, and there aren’t many more important players than the lead receiver.
“The next step in my development is that I’m ready to be a leader in the room and lead some of the young guys,’’ Smith-Njigba said. “I’m looking forward to that challenge.’’
In 2020, Wilson bided his time before moving to the outside by playing in the slot. The results were splendid with him catching 43 passes for 723 yards and six scores in a COVID-19-shortened season of eight games.
Of the newbies coming up, it would appear that Egbuka could fill the slot. He is 6 feet 1, 205 pounds and difficult to bring down.
It would be difficult to imagine receivers coach Brian Hartline and Day tinkering with what has worked with Smith-Njigba playing in the slot.
“We’re going to have to see in the spring,’’ Smith-Njigba said of any move. “I’m sure I’ll do a little bit of both in the spring. In high school, I played outside and a little bit in the slot.’’
The biggest change, though, is that defenses will be geared toward stopping him or at least limiting his production.
“Definitely different,’’ he said. “I’ll have to go to a different level mentally and physically. A lot of people will be watching me and I have to set the example. I look forward to playing against the best players across the line every week.’’
He later said, “I’m a competitor. I like going against the best because I feel like I’m the best. That’s what drives me.’’
Smith-Njigba merely is fulfilling expectations of being a five-star prospect out of Rockwall, Texas. He was a top 50 overall player and the state’s 6A player of the year after catching 104 passes for 2,094 yards and 35 touchdowns as a senior.
His production this season, though, stuns him.
“It’s surreal,’’ he said. “As the season went on, they had to account for me. I’m sure defenses talked about me – I would hope.’’
Maybe the slot will continue to be home for Smith-Njigba. He has the size at 6 feet, 200 pounds and thrives weaving his way around linebackers and in front of safeties in dangerous areas.
The key is that he has been such a precise route runner and can find open space when the pocket breaks down and CJ Stroud must improvise.
“All the years playing I always have tried to be the quarterback’s best friend,’’ Smith-Njigba said. “This year, I’ve read the defenses and adjusted. I’ve tried to be accountable.’’