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How Jaxon Smith-Njigba became Ohio State’s next great receiver

By Laken Litman
FOX Sports College Football Writer

Jaxon Smith-Njigba ran a fade route, regarded over his proper shoulder, and caught an inconceivable landing move from C.J. Stroud. He celebrated by doing the ‘Griddy’ dance as Ohio State took its first lead over Utah in final yr’s Rose Bowl.

“It was an distinctive play,” says Brian Hartline, a former Ohio State and NFL wideout turned his alma mater’s passing recreation coordinator and receivers coach. “When that occurred, it was a kind of ‘Wow’ moments. And it sticks with me.”

It wowed Ohio State alum Kirk Herbstreit, too, who was calling the sport, a 48-45 Buckeyes win.

“You don’t train what he simply did,” Herbstreit stated on the published. “The instincts to look over his shoulder, virtually like Willie Mays [catching] that soccer and [making] it seem like he’s at a observe on a Wednesday.”

Smith-Njigba, who was named the sport’s MVP, smashed a bunch of Rose Bowl information that day: 15 catches for 347 yards (additionally an all-time bowl recreation file, program single-game file and the second-most in Big Ten historical past) and three touchdowns.

That efficiency got here on the heels of a stellar season through which the then-sophomore set every kind of Buckeyes information with 95 receptions (fifth most in Big Ten historical past) and 1,606 receiving yards (breaking a 20-year-old convention receiving yards file) on a workforce that featured first-round NFL Draft picks Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave.

Funny factor about that receiver trio — Wilson and Olave, who had been drafted Nos. 10 and 11 general, respectively, imagine Smith-Njigba is the most effective of the bunch. 

“He’s supernatural,” Wilson told Herbstreit in an interview last year.

Ohio State is relying on it.

Last yr, the Buckeyes thought that they had sufficient expertise to win all of it. They went 11-2 and gained the Rose Bowl, however didn’t beat Michigan, didn’t win the Big Ten, didn’t make the College Football Playoff and thus didn’t get to play for a nationwide title. The workforce felt the season was a failure.

Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s 2021 highlights

Check out the highlights from Ohio State receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s 2021 season earlier than the Buckeyes tackle Notre Dame to start out 2022.

This yr, it’s championship or bust for Ohio State, which begins its quest Saturday internet hosting Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. ET). And as Smith-Njigba enters his third yr, he’s an enormous key to these excessive hopes. He’s now one of many prime gamers in faculty soccer — a Heisman Trophy candidate (+3000 via FOX Bet) who will likely be enjoying alongside two others in teammates Stroud (+225), a finalist final yr, and operating again TreVeyon Henderson (+4000). He additionally has a shot at profitable the Biletnikoff Award because the nation’s finest receiver.

And fortunately for Ohio State, Smith-Njigba has been making ready his complete life for this second. 

[College football Week 1 preview]

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Sports had been central in Smith-Njigba’s household. His father, Maada, performed linebacker at Stephen F. Austin, and his older brother, Canaan, who Jaxon calls his hero, was drafted by the New York Yankees out of highschool and now performs left area for the Pittsburgh Pirates

From a younger age, Maada skilled his sons close to their residence in Rockwall, Texas, 23 miles northeast of Dallas. After he and the boys’ mother divorced, Maada had to determine what to do together with his sons throughout his time with them. Working for the Dallas Fire Department, he lived in a one-bedroom house and didn’t personal a TV. Going to the films or Chuck E. Cheese wasn’t within the playing cards financially. So he leaned on what he knew finest, which was sports activities.

Jaxon Smith-Njigba, from his youth soccer days. (Photo courtesy of Maada Smith-Njigba)

“My aim was to tire them out so after we acquired residence, all I needed to do was feed them, bathe them and put them to sleep,” Maada says. “Then they began getting on [local] groups and I used to be like, ‘Oh my god, these guys are good! They can play!’”

Every day he put Jaxon and Canaan, who’s two-and-a-half years older, by exercises he made up or mimicked from his enjoying days. In {the summertime}, there have been two-a-days beginning at 6 a.m. to beat the Texas warmth. During the varsity yr, he’d choose the boys up and take them to Walmart Hill (a steep hill behind the Walmart throughout from Rockwall High School, the place Jaxon went), the place they’d do hill repeats. They’d additionally swim, field, carry weights on the fitness center and work on explosiveness by leaping within the house whereas carrying a weighted vest. 

“It was all day, day-after-day,” Smith-Njigba says. “We’d get up and prepare for the exercise. That was our lives.” 

As the youngsters acquired older, Maada made the exercises increased stakes. He’d inform Jaxon to catch 12 passes or run 15 routes and catch 90% of the passes earlier than dinner, or instruct Canaan to area 50 balls and put them within the bucket. He’d kick a soccer ball at a 45-degree angle and make the boys minimize it off, management the ball and rating. Sometimes they’d add a stopwatch and see how briskly they might do all of it.

Maada was “strict with all the most effective intentions,” says the boys’ mom, Jami Smith. The drills had been powerful but additionally enjoyable, and Jaxon and Canaan at all times embraced the problem.

“We had been opponents,” Canaan says. “We didn’t dread it. It was extra like, that is the work we put in so after we play different children within the neighborhood, we’ll be higher than everybody.

“… Our finest days are after we’re all collectively, having a great exercise. Us competing, operating up that hill — and clearly I used to be larger, stronger and quicker so I used to be beating Jaxon — enjoying one-on-one, my dad being the all-time quarterback. Those had been the most effective days.”

For Maada, it was an opportunity to bond.

“If we had been sitting on the sofa watching TV, they’re not gonna discuss to me,” Maada says. “But once I’m throwing baseballs to Canaan, he’s going to inform me about women or this and that. Same with Jaxon. When we’re doing drills, we take a break after which it’s, ‘Hey, who are you taking to the Valentine’s dance?’ And he’ll discuss. That was a great time for us to actually discuss and actually get to know them.”

As a child, Smith-Njigba labored out on a monitor to enhance his 40 time. (Photo courtesy of Maada Smith-Njigba)

Jaxon was additionally honing his creativity. When he wasn’t enjoying outdoors, he was establishing imaginary soccer video games in his lounge. Sometimes with Canaan, but when he wasn’t round, Jaxon didn’t thoughts enjoying alone. He used pillows for the sidelines and practiced making acrobatic catches whereas retaining his toes contained in the fluffy boundaries. He used sofa cushions as defenders he’d evade. He put socks in his waistband and pretended somebody pulled his flag. He wore an imaginary headset and challenged performs. He was the offense, protection and referee.

“He’d very a lot visualize a recreation in his head,” his mom says. “He would enable cushions to sort out him or chase him. If Canaan wasn’t enjoying, he’d throw the ball to himself and that was a catch. He’d maneuver by obstacles that he created with no matter he may discover in the home.”

And in fact he’d gown the half. If he was enjoying offense, he’d put on one colour jersey or outsized T-shirt after which do a wardrobe change on protection.

“He was very obsessive about wristbands,” Jami says. “He was very specific about the best way his socks match. And he’s nonetheless like this right now. He plans out what he’s going to put on.”

Jaxon at all times watched plenty of soccer, both on TV or when his dad and mom took him to Kyle Field — he grew up a Texas A&M fan — or AT&T Stadium. It continues right now. When former Alabama and present Philadelphia Eagles receiver DeVonta Smith gained the Heisman, Jaxon says he, Wilson and Olave began watching his movie “instantly.” 

“I don’t know if the phrase is manifest, however he watches a lot movie and so many video games that he would simply attempt to repeat what he was seeing,” Jami says. “He does visualize first what he thinks goes to occur in a recreation. Then he performs that out in several situations, making completely different catches and operating completely different routes.”

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Beyond the soccer classes imparted from his father, Smith-Njigba carries one thing else from his household with him on the sphere. 

Smith-Njigba was named MVP of the Rose Bowl after making 15 catches for 347 yards in opposition to Utah. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

When Jaxon’s grandfather, John, got here to the United States from Sierra Leone within the Seventies, he introduced the surname Njigba however wished to slot in. So he adopted the final title of one among his sponsors and glided by John Smith. The next technology included Njigba on all of their authorized paperwork, however didn’t use it. Up till highschool, Jaxon glided by Jaxon Smith.

Jaxon had an in depth relationship together with his grandpa, and after he died in 2014, Jaxon stated he wished to signify his title accurately. When he acquired to highschool and was a freshman enjoying varsity soccer, he wished Smith-Njigba on the again of his jersey. Canaan did the identical when he was traded from the Yankees to the Pirates in January 2021.

“It’s our blood,” Jaxon says. “My dad made certain we knew the place we got here from and our background and the way our grandfather needed to work for all the things and alter his title to get jobs. We know issues aren’t going to be given to us. We know we have now to work for it.”

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Though he performs a place that’s inherently flashy, Smith-Njigba is the alternative of rah-rah. Maada and Hartline have tried to get him to be extra vocal, but it surely’s not his pure MO.

“He’s undoubtedly a by-example form of man,” Hartline says. “He’ll provide you with loads of clips to make use of for example, however he will not at all times converse up if one thing is irritating him or if he sees a foul clip from someone else. 

“I feel it is the trendy athlete. Sometimes guys are such good pals and have developed such a brotherhood and camaraderie that it’s actually arduous to step out of that and be crucial. I’ve inspired him to do this. He does not need it to come back off the mistaken manner. But he realizes the extra he does that, the extra he is serving to that athlete.”

The lack of tooting his personal horn could also be a cause he wasn’t extremely recruited. Smith-Njigba had a stellar highschool profession, however early on he simply had a couple of affords from Colorado and Iowa State. None of the “biggies,” as his dad says, took discover.

“Honestly, Jaxon will not be very loud,” Maada says. “He’s not a social media man. He’s a Friday evening man.”

Smith-Njigba warms up prior a recreation in opposition to Rutgers final October. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

He additionally wasn’t extremely rated amongst recruiting companies. Entering his senior yr, 247Sports had him because the No. 62 general prospect, although he finally climbed as much as No. 29. Receivers ranked forward of him included teammate Julian Fleming and LSU’s Kayshon Boutte

“Coming up, I wasn’t a 5 star till [senior year],” Smith-Njigba says. “I used to be at all times within the combine, however my dad instilled that confidence in me and my brother, that we had been the most effective. No one is best than us.”

Smith-Njigba made varsity his freshman yr at Rockwall and began his sophomore by senior seasons. He was the main receiver in Dallas as a junior and confirmed up in massive video games, like when he had 13 catches for 289 yards and three touchdowns in a one-score recreation in opposition to Longview, who went on to win the 2018 state championship. He additionally caught 14 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns in a playoff recreation in opposition to powerhouse Allen.

It was round this time that Ohio State courted him arduous. Smith-Njigba felt seen and dedicated throughout a November 2018 campus go to. He was really supposed to go to Notre Dame the next weekend, however canceled these plans. 

[Week 1 by the numbers]

“We didn’t know an excessive amount of about Ohio in Texas,” Maada says. “We watch Texas A&M, we watch Texas, we watch Oklahoma. But Jaxon stated [of Ohio State], ‘You come here, you do well and you go to the NFL.’ Those had been his phrases.”

Smith-Njigba piled on extra spectacular numbers as a senior and was named Texas 6A Player of the Year. He had 252 yards and 5 touchdowns in a playoff win over Allen and ended his 4 years with 5,346 yards and 82 touchdowns. 

Word finally acquired round and then-Texas coach Tom Herman referred to as, A&M’s Jimbo Fisher visited and then-Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley popped up, too.

But, Maada says, “They simply confirmed up too late.” 

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As the 2022 faculty soccer season begins, Smith-Njigba is in each finest participant dialog. He performs for a nationwide title contender that’s extra dedicated to the passing recreation with weapons all around the area. 

Stroud, who’s Smith-Njigba’s closest pal on the workforce, has choices if his buddy is double-covered, but it surely’s not typically that Smith-Njigba can’t shake a man free. As head coach Ryan Day stated at Big Ten media days this summer time, “Some guys simply run routes the best way that they’re drawn up within the playbook, after which there are some guys that simply get open.” Smith-Njigba is the latter.

“I feel the largest factor I’ve seen from him is his capacity to beat leverage and beat the benefit that defenders have on him to be constantly productive,” Hartline says. “And I feel there hasn’t been too many conditions the place he couldn’t get open or execute. He at all times finds a manner, whether or not it’s operating the path to be open or catching the soccer round someone. 

“It’s actually arduous for anyone, particularly at this stage, with the best way he performs.”

C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba rejoice after defeating Utah within the Rose Bowl. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Hartline, who has labored with Jameson Wilson, Terry McLaurin and KJ Hill, considers Smith-Njigba “in all probability the most effective receiver that I’ve ever coached,” saying, “I performed with plenty of great ones and this man places himself in plenty of these conversations.” He’s powerful, mature, performs arduous and profitable issues to him. He loves to speak smack to Stroud after they’re enjoying H-O-R-S-E — the QB-WR duo spent plenty of time collectively this summer time, happening trip and visiting one another’s respective households in Dallas and Los Angeles.

But he additionally doesn’t thoughts doing the work.

“He prides himself on doing all the things from blocking at a excessive stage to catching at a excessive stage,” Hartline says. “It doesn’t matter what the job description is, Jaxon goes to do it and attempt to be the most effective at it. I feel his competitiveness and need to at all times win on each rep, to at all times be open and at all times make the play is one thing that carries him a good distance.”

[CFB odds: How to bet Ohio State-Notre Dame]

Day additionally sees an uncommon expertise.

“Jaxon is a particular participant,” the Buckeyes coach says. “He has a singular ability of fixing route, quick space quickness, establishing receivers or establishing DBs, ball abilities, his spatial consciousness is off the charts. And he’s powerful and he’s aggressive.”

That comes from all these hours spent coaching together with his brother and father – a payoff the world witnessed throughout a Rose Bowl efficiency Canaan referred to as “magical,” although not stunning.

“It’s testimony to all the things we’ve ever achieved in our lives and been by and completed,” Canaan says. “I used to be grateful he had that second. The expertise was superb. 

“But the efficiency itself, effectively, I’ve seen it too many occasions and know what number of extra occasions he’s going to do it.”

Laken Litman covers faculty soccer, faculty basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She beforehand wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the writer of “Strong Like a Woman,” revealed in spring 2022 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.

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