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

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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.

Air Force football sanctioned for recruiting violations

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AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — The Air Force football program received two years of probation from the NCAA and had its squad size reduced by 10 for four years as part of its sanctions for recruiting violations.

The penalties were announced Thursday after Air Force and four individuals reached an agreement with NCAA enforcement staff on recruiting violations. A fifth individual in the case has contested their role and will be heard by the committee on infractions.

The sanctions also include a fine and a reduction of 46 total official visits for the football program in the 2022-23 and `23-24 academic years. In addition, there’s a prohibition on unofficial visits in football from Sept. 1 through Oct. 12, 2022, and a reduced number of evaluation days this fall.

Air Force has around 115 players on its varsity roster, plus a JV team that all count as NCAA athletes and its roster size.

“The (committee) appreciates the parties’ efforts in working collaboratively together to reach agreement on the violations, levels, classifications, and significant and meaningful penalties,” Gary Miller, the chief hearing officer for the panel and president at Akron, said in a statement. “The panel also recognizes that Air Force has gone above and beyond in its overall approach to this case.”

In a joint statement, Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark and director of athletics Nathan Pine said: “The U.S. Air Force Academy is pleased that our case has progressed to the point of the NCAA accepting our negotiated resolution. We will continue working with the NCAA on this ongoing self-reported case from the COVID dead period, as it’s our responsibility to ensure integrity of the institution, athletics department, cadet-athletes and staff.”

The Falcons are off to a 3-1 start and host Navy on Saturday to begin the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy competition. The trophy is presented to the service academy with the best record in the round-robin format.

Florida shakes up secondary after dismal game at Tennessee

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Billy Napier is shaking up his secondary after the Gators allowed 349 yards passing – including 247 of those on eight plays – in a loss at Tennessee.

Safety Trey Dean, a fifth-year senior who has started 32 games and played in 54, is out with what Florida is calling a “lower leg injury.” But no one would be surprised if Napier was quietly benching Dean after he made two mental errors against the Volunteers that resulted in 70- and 45-yard gains and set up touchdowns.

Freshman Kamari Wilson will replace Dean and make his first college start Sunday against Eastern Washington.

Cornerback Jaydon Hill will join Wilson in the starting lineup. Hill, a third-year sophomore, will make his first start since 2020. He missed the 2021 season with a torn knee ligament. He impressed Napier and his new staff in the spring but sat out preseason camp with another knee injury.

Hill will replace sophomore Avery Helm, who also struggled against the Vols.

“You talk about what he’s been through from an injury perspective,” Napier said following practice Wednesday. “Jaydon was one of the better players that we had on our team in spring practice. I was very impressed . It’s no surprise to me. He showed pretty quickly here that he’s very capable. I’m excited to watch him play.”

Georgia transfer Jalen Kimber, a former five-star recruit, is now listed as a third-team cornerback. Kimber played just 11 snaps in Knoxville a week after he returned an interception for a touchdown in a 31-28 win against South Florida.

“I like to say we try to eliminate the bad football,” Napier said. “Talking about mental errors, misalignments, poor communication, bad fundamentals and techniques, bad decision-making within the play. … We have a laundry list of things that we need to eliminate each week.

“Last week’s game, I thought we were really close, but there’s 12 or 15 plays in the game where Florida is beating Florida. We’ve got a smart group here. I think they’re very aware of what the issues are, and I think they’re working hard to address those issues.”