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.

Minnesota football players’ discrimination lawsuit dismissed

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by nine former University of Minnesota football players who were accused of sexual assault in 2016 in a case that roiled the school’s football program.

The lawsuit against the school claimed that the players faced emotional distress and financial damage after being falsely accused of being sex offenders. The players, who were identified in the lawsuit as John Does, sought unspecified damages for willful and malicious discrimination.

A woman alleged up to a dozen football players raped her or watched and cheered at an off-campus party in 2016. None of the players were ever charged.

The university found that 10 football players committed sexual misconduct. Five of them were expelled or suspended for violating student conduct codes, and the others were cleared on appeal.

In their lawsuit, the players alleged that the woman initiated the sexual encounters with players and an underage recruit.

U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank dismissed the lawsuit last week, saying the former players did not prove any of their claims, including allegations of bias by university investigators or pressure from Athletic Director Mark Coyle and former President Eric Kaler, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported.

David Madgett, an attorney for the players, said Tuesday that they are considering an appeal but have to determine if it makes sense financially and in terms of letting the former players get on with their lives. He said it was disappointing that the outcome was determined by the judge’s version of events and not decided by a jury.

“It’s disappointing to see disputes decided in this way,” Madgett said. “That’s the way things are decided more and more these days. … It’s disappointing you don’t get your day in court.”

When the allegations became public in 2016, players threatened to boycott the team’s trip to the Holiday Bowl. But after a graphic report of the investigation was released, the players agreed to play in the game.

University of Minnesota spokesman Jake Ricker said the school appreciated the judge’s decision affirming the actions taken in the case. He said the university would continue its work focusing on sexual misconduct awareness, prevention and response.

Frank dismissed the lawsuit in 2019, but an appeals court reinstated part of it in 2021 and returned it to Frank.

The players, all of whom are Black, also initially claimed racial discrimination, but that claim was previously dismissed.

The only remaining claim alleged Title IX gender discrimination. The former players noted that they never faced criminal charges, but Frank’s ruling said that “is certainly not evidence of a judicial adjudication or that plaintiffs ‘were proven innocent.'”

The men also claimed that an investigator for the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action used “manipulative tactics” with them in interviews and that their accuser helped draft the report. The players also alleged that “prior failed investigations motivated” the the school to punish them.

Frank said all the claims were unsupported by the evidence and “no reasonable jury could find that the University disciplined plaintiffs on the basis of sex.”

Michigan State player who swung helmet gets probation

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A Michigan State football player who swung his helmet at a Michigan player in a stadium tunnel expressed regret Tuesday and said he’s “just looking forward to wuppin’ some maize and blue” on the field.

Khary Crump, a defensive back, was sentenced to probation. He was one of seven Michigan State players charged in a skirmish that followed a loss at Michigan Stadium on Oct. 29.

Crump was the only Spartan facing a felony, but that charge was dismissed in an agreement to plead guilty to misdemeanors. His record will be scrubbed clean if he stays out of trouble while on probation.

“Unfortunately, an exchange of words (took place), I felt attacked and unfortunately I did what I did,” Crump said of the tunnel altercation involving Michigan’s Gemon Green. “I’m not proud of that. I’m looking forward to moving forward.”

Crump was suspended by coach Mel Tucker. In addition, the Big Ten has suspended him for eight games in 2023.

“I had difficulties trying to stomach my actions … on that fateful day, but it happened. I can’t take it back,” Crump told MLive.com after the court hearing. “Honestly, I’m just looking forward to wuppin’ some maize and blue in the future — on the football field, of course.”

At least four other players charged with misdemeanors Will Likely have their cases dismissed in exchange for community service and other conditions. The cases against two others are pending.