Jaxon Smith-Njigba ready for role as top receiver for Ohio State

Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch/USA TODAY NETWORK
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Jaxon Smith-Njigba was one of the Ohio State receivers who weren’t getting a lot of attention at this time last year. All the national buzz was about NFL prospects Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson.

Smith-Njigba, the starting slot receiver for the Buckeyes as a sophomore last year, eventually stepped out of the shadow of the more established receivers to pace the Buckeyes with 95 catches and 1,606 yards.

With Olave and Wilson sitting out the Rose Bowl and looking ahead to the NFL draft, Smith-Njigba became the game’s offensive MVP, catching 15 passes for a postseason-record 347 receiving yards and three touchdowns in Ohio State’s 48-45 shootout win over Utah.

Smith-Njigba entered spring practice 2022 as the undisputed No. 1 wideout, the guy who will be getting the preseason attention this time.

The annual Scarlet and Gray game will be less about him and more about Ohio State’s other receivers auditioning to be his costars in the Buckeyes’ high-flying offense.

Young receivers Marvin Harrison Jr. – who caught three touchdown passes of his own in the Rose Bowl – Emeka Egbuka, Julian Fleming and freshman Kyion Grayes will get a chance to make their cases Saturday at Ohio Stadium.

“It’s just a new wave now, a group of receivers, of course, and I’m excited,” Smith-Njigba said. “It’s just next man up, honestly.”

Coach Ryan Day said Smith-Njigba will be lining up all over the field in 2022, so other receivers will have to be versatile, too.

“We’re going to have to move Jaxon around,” Day said. “That’s just how it’s going to have to go. Even last year in the bowl game he played outside a little bit, caught the big touchdown pass in a two tight end set. He’s a quick learner.

“The more versatile those guys are and we can move them around, the better we’re going to be, so I don’t think there’s one guy that’s just learning one position,” Day said. “I think they’re all learning multiple positions right now, which is really the way it should be done.”

What Smith-Njigba is looking forward to most is being the featured wideout in an offense led by quarterback C.J. Stroud, who as a freshman last season threw for 4,435 yards and 44 touchdowns while completing 72% of his passes.

“I’m definitely excited to get on the outside and get some one-on-one opportunities, hopefully, with some corners,” he said. “I feel like that’s a piece of my game that I’m ready to show, also, this year. They’ve definitely given me more freedom, I feel like.”

He and the Buckeyes are hoping the Rose Bowl star turn is a preview of things to come. And he knows the No. 1 receiver role comes with the responsibility of setting an example.

“That’s my challenge to me is how can I step up even more, be a leader to these young guys and see if we can make a run at the natty this year,” he said.

His fellow receivers see the commitment.

“He’s put so much pressure on himself,” Harrison said. “He’s motivated more than anybody here probably.”

LEGACY BUCKEYE

Diante Griffin, the grandson of Ohio State legend Archie Griffin, has committed to Ohio State as a preferred walk-on. Running back Archie Griffin is the only player to win the Heisman Trophy in consecutive years, in 1974 and ’75. Diante’s father, Andre, played running back for Ohio State from 1998-2001. The younger Griffin is a defensive back from Lima (Ohio) Senior High School.

NOTES: Defensive backs Bryson Shaw and Lejond Cavazos plan to transfer. Shaw started 12 games at safety last season. Cavazos was limited by injuries during his two seasons in Columbus. … Brian Hartline got a raise to $950,000 after being promoted from receivers coach to passing game coordinator. His base salary was $600,000 last season. Tony Alford will make $750,000 after being promoted from running backs coach to running game coordinator. That’s up from $618,000.