Football: After season full of flashes, Smith-Nijgba looks to put it all together in sophomore campaign

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Ohio State then-sophomore wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba (11) catches a pass in the end zone during the Ohio State spring game on April 17. Credit: Mackenzie Shanklin | Photo Editor

Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s introduction to Buckeye Nation was a memorable one.

In the season-opener against Nebraska last season, the then-freshman soared to haul in a pass from Justin Fields in the back of the end zone and narrowly landed his left foot in bounds to secure his first career touchdown reception.

Entering his sophomore season with heightened expectations and a move inside, Smith-Njigba said he’s fully prepared for a more involved role in the offense.

“It’s a big role. I accept it. I’m ready for it,” Smith-Njigba said.

Smith-Njigba will take over the slot wide receiver position — where teammate and junior wide receiver Garrett Wilson burst into the national spotlight in 2020.

As Wilson shifts back to his natural position on the outside, he had high praise for Smith-Njigba’s play at his former position to this point in preseason camp.

“Jaxon is as good as I’ve ever seen, probably the best I’ve ever seen. I’ve got faith in Jaxon. I feel like Jaxon is the most natural athlete I’ve ever seen,” Wilson said. “Being like I am, I’m one of the people that I feel like I’m the best on the field every time. I saw Jaxon for the first time and I was like, ‘Hey.’ Jaxon, I mean, he’s everything and then some, for sure.”

Slotting into the new position, Smith-Nijgba pointed to his versatility as a factor that made his transition seamless.

“I can play both [outside and slot], really. I’m comfortable with both,” Smith-Njigba said. “I can go out to the outside when we’re in different personnel, but I’m usually in the slot. It’s more physical in there and I got more room and I feel comfortable. I feel like it’s easier, a little bit, and I like it a lot.”

In his freshman campaign, Smith-Njigba hauled in 10 receptions for 49 yards and his toe-tap touchdown against Nebraska.

With attention to his freshman year, Smith-Nijgba said his ability to get on the field will pay dividends this season.

“I got my feet wet a little bit. I know what to expect,” Smith-Njigba said. “I feel like I’m prepared and ready for this year.”

While Smith-Njigba was hauling in passes from Fields last year, the Rockwall, Texas, native will be on the receiving end of passes from a new starting quarterback this year — redshirt freshman C.J. Stroud.

Coming into Columbus as part of the class of 2020, Stroud and Smith-Njigba crossed paths in the recruiting circuit and in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. As the duo moves into their second season together, Smith-Njigba emphasized that their chemistry continues to grow.

“Since high school, really, just getting so many reps with him. All-American game, he started there,” Smith-Njigba said. “Just learning more about each other, learning what he likes, him learning what I like and how I move and what I like to sell a lot. He can put it places where defenders can’t get to it.”

Although Smith-Njigba is only in his second season in the program, he’s already serving as a mentor for the receiving corps’ trio of freshmen.

Smith-Njigba said he shared some lessons with the newcomers to the wide receivers room.

“Just coming out and being them and just playing hard and just following the game plan,” Smith-Njigba said. “Learning their role and just doing the best in their role. Those guys are really talented; just being them and just going hard every play.”

As Smith-Njigba prepares for an increased role this season, wide receivers coach Brian Hartline said his addition into the starting lineup was an indication that he was one of the top guys in a loaded receiving corps.

“I think it just comes down to the best players can get on the field. Best players play,” Hartline said. “Now, can some guys be a little better here or there? Sure. I mean, they’re fractions of a difference, but we just try to maximize opportunity and formations; body of work; the consistency level.”

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