Jaxon Smith-Njigba's breakout game proves that all the hype was warranted
From just being a legend to actually becoming legendary: JSN's breakout college game
How Jaxon Smith-Njigba got from his birth on Valentine’s Day in 2002 to the end of his freshman season at Ohio State (with an historic Texas high school career smashed in the middle) was covered in the first installment of his origin story and the inaugural “Super Joes” bonus article in June.
Today’s post will be the exploration of Smith-Njigba’s breakout game against Oregon and leading into how he became even more legendary in college than he was at Rockwall High.
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Despite finishing his freshman season with 10 catches for 49 yards, teammate Garrett Wilson called Jaxon Smith-Njigba “probably the best I’ve ever seen” before Ohio State’s first game of 2021. He also said that JSN was “the most natural athlete” had had seen, which is an interesting satement given that he was teammates with Justin Fields, Chris Olave, J.K. Dobbins, Jameson Williams, and Paris Johnson.
All within the first minute of this clip, Wilson notes that JSN is “everything and then some” and that it changed his own perspective of always believing he is the best player on the field.
While playing in the slot in 2020, Wilson had caught 43 passes for 723 yards and six touchdowns in only eight games, but he was forced to the outside to make room for Smith-Njigba in 2021. Olave concurred with Wilson, saying that Smith-Njigba is a “rare talent” with “sneaky speed”.
For his own table meeting with the media, Smith-Njigba was excited to get to play in between two of the best receivers in college football, a feeling he gets to replicate now with the Seattle Seahawks.
“Looking forward to my role, just bringing energy, and when the focus is on those two talented guys outside, then I can make some room and spread the field out and make plays,” Smith-Njigba said. “It’s a big role. I accept it and I’m ready for it,” Smith-Njigba said. “It’s a big role in the offense and I just gotta get prepared and ready for it, which I feel like I am.”
Brian Hartline, the receivers coach at Ohio State from 2018 to present but who also added the title of passing game coordinator after Smith-Njigba (spoiler) set the school’s single-game receiving yardage record in 2021, noted that in practices JSN was more than just an exceptional route runner with great hands.
“I would say his dominant presence in the run game through spring has been really good,” Hartline said. “That’s got to continue. And then again, I think he does a really good job spatially of finding spaces and playing the ball.”
His acumen in that element of the offense is particularly impressive given that Smith-Njigba readily admitted he didn’t block much at all in high school.
“I just put emphasis on everything that I do, so I take everything with pride,” Smith-Njigba said. “If they tell me to block a guy, then I’m gonna try to do my best to do that. Run a route, I’m gonna try to do my best to do that. So I’m just focused on trying to go hard every play.”
Again, these were all points being made before Smith-Njigba had caught his 11th career pass in college. But this kind of hype before his breakout season was also somewhat familiar territory for Smith-Njigba, a player who has been “special” on a football field before he even got to high school.
In an article for The Athletic posted in May of 2021, which is still when Smith-Njigba was essentially just an awesome recruit (remember, he wasn’t even the highest-ranked wide receiver recruit in his own class at Ohio State), high school coach Rodney Webb recalled spotting JSN at a summer camp when he was in between middle school and the ninth grade.
Webb: I’ll never forget watching him run around catching footballs, and I’m making eye contact with our offensive coordinator from across the field like, “What in the world is going on here?”
Rockwall’s offensive coordinator Trey Brooks said that Smith-Njigba “knew all the routes already” and that even as an eighth grader he was “a natural route runner”. The coaches basically had to “make up” routes during camp just to challenge Smith-Njigba. Webb called Smith-Njigba’s awareness “uncanny” and this was all before they knew if he’d even be going to high school at Rockwall.
Then after his freshman season of high school, before he had his immense breakout as a sophomore, Smith-Njigba impressed incoming quarterback transfer Jacob Clark, who ended up as a four-star recruit.
I remember him being the punt returner, and him doing things most 14-year-olds aren’t able to do. It was a playoff game and he probably had four punt returns for around 100 yards. I knew he was gonna be a special player watching him at that age. When I got to Rockwall, he was still super young, and I was playing Texas high school football for the first time. His ability to create separation stood out. He’s obviously very fast, but what sets him apart is his ability to get in and out of breaks to create separation from people. And obviously, he has tremendous hands. Anything that’s in his area, he’s able to go get.
Webb noted that Smith-Njigba became just as much of a local legend at practices as he did on Fridays—”We’ll tell stories forever about the time he caught the 50-yard post with one hand behind his head.”—and that physics-defying catches were just part of JSN’s routine.
But especially attractive to Pete Carroll would be the “competitive greatness” that Webb used to describe Smith-Njigba, noting that he plays his best games against the best competition.
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That’s also something that would eventually emerge in college at Ohio State, it just didn’t happen immediately.
His high school teammates and coaches seemingly could have filled a bible with stories of what made Smith-Njigba special, the dominant games with 250+ yards, the natural ability combined with a desire to put in the work to be the best, as well as the one-handed catches. So much so that even opposing coach Jeff Fleener chimed in, putting Smith-Njigba among the best players he’s ever seen despite not coaching him.
Fleener: You try to tell yourself as you’re going through the game, “We’re not gonna let him be the one to beat us.” But he’s just an unbelievable talent and unbelievable competitor with a nose for the ball. There’s no such thing as 50-50 balls with him. It’s probably more about 90-10 if it was going his way.
Fleener: I was the offensive coordinator at Allen and coached Kyler Murray, so you’re gonna have a whole lot of trouble getting me to say anybody is better than that kid. But Jaxon is definitely a top-five kid as far as me seeing them live in a football game with the way he can take over a game. The thing that makes him more impressive than anything else is typically when you talk about guys like that, you’re usually talking about a quarterback or running back. You usually don’t see it from a guy that’s a receiver. His ability to take over a game from that position is still one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen.
It’s one thing to be so iconic in college that writers dedicate precious hours to telling your story. Given how many five and four-star recruits never live up to the hype, it’s another thing to be so good in high school and to get so many positive reports out of Ohio State practices that members of the media have that much confidence after 10 catches for 49 yards through your first college season.
But by the fall, Smith-Njigba had earned a starting role and head coach Ryan Day noted in late August that coaches had seen the progress and consistency from JSN that they were hoping to see before fitting him in with the starters.
“I think that he had a good year last year, but now he’s got to take the next step,” Day said. “We wanted him to be in the mix with the first group, and he can do so many great things. It just needs to be more consistent. But we’re excited about this year. He’s had a good, solid spring. He needs to now have a great summer so he can have a great preseason going into the year. But he flashed. He made some really nice catches today. I think he’s really coming on. He’s done a nice job blocking on the perimeter, which is huge for us. That was a huge emphasis for us coming off of last year that we’ve got to improve on. Excited to see where it goes. We’re hoping that he takes the next step.”
Hartline added that Smith-Njigba was probably also “the best blocker” in the wide receivers room. That could be more evidence that Smith-Njigba never wastes opportunities to get better since was not able to get as many snaps as he wanted in 2020 and may have worked on his blocking and special teams abilities in order to do whatever he could to see more playing time.
Then on September 2, 2021, Jaxon Smith-Njigba made his debut as a starter against Minnesota.
Well, nothing really special happened that day.
Also the debut for C.J. Stroud, the Ohio State quarterback tossed four touchdowns against Minnesota, including 117 yards and two scores to Olave, 80 yards and a score to Wilson, and a 70-yard touchdown to running back TreVeyon Henderson. Smith-Njigba would only catch two passes for 12 yards, but did display some of the route running and blocking that coaches had praised coming out of practices.
But still, what about all that hype before the season? Receivers don’t get called “better than me” by players like Garrett Wilson just because they’re good run blockers. Wilson and Olave finished with nine catches for 197 yards and even tight end Jeremy Ruckert had more yards than JSN that day, with 15.
After a dominant high school career in which he had practically become accustomed to topping 300 yards, patience wasn’t something that Smith-Njigba necessarily had to deal with very often. But in the case of his sophomore season at Ohio State, it would certainly pay off in Week 2.
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