Due to the usual mass exodus of NFL talent and attrition at certain positions, Ohio State was bound to have a few breakout players this season — stars even. The Buckeyes lost the likes of Justin Fields and Trey Sermon on offense, as well as Shaun Wade and every linebacker that has played since the Bush administration on defense. At a program like OSU, the expectation is to reload and simply carry on with your winning ways. Sometimes the transition is seamless, other times it can be a bit rocky. I think it’s fair to describe the early stages of 2021 as “rocky”.
Despite the ups and downs of those first few weeks, Ohio State has seemingly found its way. And guess what? That’s fine! There should be a realistic expectation (fans: we’re guilty) that the Buckeyes don’t get to just roll the ball out and leave with a victory each week. Teams don’t make it to the CFP because of their brand or the logo on their helmets… err, they don’t always make it for those reasons. They earn it (for the most part) through hard work, dedication, and all that cliché junk.
Often times, the process and the growing pains are the most enjoyable parts of the experience. Building a contender is not supposed to be easy. Replacing Fields, or Sermon, or one of the Bosa brothers is never easy. It’s the grind that makes the celebration worth it. Coaches make a considerable effort to implement a scheme(s), recruit the right players, develop them, and put them in a position to succeed.
Despite their best efforts, sometimes coaches just miss. They miss on the player, or they miss on said player’s ability to fit into the scheme — or ability to fit into the program, which is generally a bummer for all involved. The work ethic isn’t there. The attitude is poor. The skills don’t translate. Coaches never anticipate a miss, but when it happens, I bet they can usually look back and say to themselves “Yeah, I should have seen that coming”.
On the other end of the spectrum are pleasant surprises. Coaches would never admit it, but occasionally players are throw-ins or depth additions. If you strike gold, that three-star guy becomes a Heisman Trophy winner. Other times, less-heralded players developer sooner than anyone anticipated and/or they just take advantage of an opportunity. When the pleasant surprises outnumber the misses, you’re doing something right. And when those surprises start to add up, you become a better team. The Buckeyes have come across a few very pleasant surprises in 2021, and these breakout players are at the top of the list.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR
Alright, alright, maybe Jaxon Smith-Njigba is not a surprising breakout to YOU. He was a five-star recruit, HS All-American, Texas 6A State Player of the Year, and generally viewed as a future superstar — future being the key word.
He began his second season as OSU’s WR3, but only after Jameson Williams’ transfer to Alabama. He still needed to fend off Julian Fleming, Emeka Egbuka, Marvin Harrison Jr., and others — which he did, seemingly with no problem. So then what? He’s just supposed to go for 1,000 yards like it’s nothing? With limited reps and a new quarterback?
He may not get there this season, but Smith-Njigba won’t finish far off as long as he remains healthy. His breakout has both helped C.J. Stroud in his development, and added another layer to this already loaded offense.
Highest-graded Big Ten WRs in Week 6— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 10, 2021
1. Jalen Nailor, MSU - 86.2
2. Chris Olave, Ohio State - 85.3
3. Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State - 76.7
4. Garrett Wilson, Ohio State - 74.2 pic.twitter.com/KSMeSaWSw1
Stroud and TreVeyon Henderson certainly deserve credit for their performance as first-time starters, but they are low-hanging fruit. They are already receiving tons of attention and accolades. They are superstars and Heisman hopefuls after only a handful of games. Stroud and Henderson have gone from relative unknowns to overnight sensations… overnight. Smith-Njigba is a star in his own right, but his ascent has been more of a slow burn.
Smith-Njigba played in seven games during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He caught passes in both playoff games. Sure, he sat behind the trio of Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, and Jameson Williams, but he played a heck of a lot more snaps than Stroud or Henderson. So maybe you would say that Stroud and/or Henderson are the breakout players because they’ve found success right away, but I view a breakout as one who takes their game to another, different level — or stratosphere in JSN’s case.
Remember, Smith-Njigba didn’t even lead Ohio State freshman in receiving yards last year. That honor belonged to Julian Fleming. Fleming was the top receiving recruit in the country for 2020, ahead of Smith-Njigba. JSN had a ridiculous, highlight-worthy touchdown catch against Indiana last year, but that was about it. He totaled 10 catches for only 49 yards. He had 12 more receiving yards than Luke Farrell! If you anticipated this kind of start to JSN’s 2021 season, you are either Doc Brown and you visited the future, or you were banking on an injury to Olave or Wilson (shame on you).
Through six games, Smith-Njigba is on pace for 900 yards and six touchdowns in the regular season. Depending on how many games Ohio State plays in the postseason, he could make a run at 1,000. OSU has five 1,000-yard seasons in their history, and as unlikely as it seems, there is a scenario where they add three more this season. Think about that: five all-time, and the Buckeyes are on pace to have three 1,000-yard receivers in 2021 alone. The competition will heat up and the temperatures will drop, so it remains unlikely, but it could happen.
So now I ask: did any of you predict three 1,000-yard receivers? Did anyone predict Smith-Njigba to reach that mark? If you answered yes, I’m calling you out — respectfully, of course. Smith-Njigba’s 452 yards through six games are not the result of a wild game or two in the absence of Olave or Wilson. If anything, it is more impressive that he didn’t even get rolling until the Oregon game, and still has 452.
After opening the season with two catches for 12 yards, Smith-Njigba has racked up 145-33-93-66-103 in the next five games. Consistent production on a number of big plays. His 19.7 yards per catch puts him fourth on the team, behind Henderson, Egbuka, and Marcus Crowley — a trio with 12 combined receptions. JSN is a big play waiting to happen, and he has shown the hands and the footwork he displayed on that insane touchdown catch against Indiana last year.
If you want to argue that Stroud or Henderson (or Mitch Rossi) is the biggest offensive breakout at the midway point, I’ll allow it. We’re all fans here. The potent offense will allow Ohio State’s defense to round into form, and Smith-Njigba has firmly entrenched himself as a member of that unit’s nucleus. At the end of the day, the fact that Ohio State has received contributions from a handful of guys who either didn’t play much or weren’t on the team last year is just good for business.
The Buckeyes have more than a few young stars in the making, but Jaxon Smith-Njigba has been my biggest surprise on the offensive side of the ball.