When Jaxon Smith-Njigba got injured at the beginning of the Notre Dame game, there was definitely some panic, both from the coaches and the fans. However, the Buckeye offense hasn’t lost a step, even with their star receiver being out. Now that JSN is expected to return against Iowa Saturday — even though Ryan Day declined to comment on that possibility during his Tuesday press conference — it’s time to start thinking about how the offense will have to change with the best receiver in the country back in the lineup.
Per usual, one of Ohio State’s biggest “problems” is the abundance of riches it has on offense. The multitude of great receivers has been working seamlessly all year long, even with WR1 out for essentially the whole season up until this point. However, when you throw the best receiver back into the mix, something has got to change.
Emeka Egbuka has taken over for JSN in the slot and as a kick returner and he has done more than one could have ever hoped for. He is actually the leading receiver on the team with 655 yards, more than Marvin Harrison Jr.’s 536. Therefore a difficult decision must be made — you can’t just make Egbuka a part-time player. But then again, you want to utilize JSN as much as possible.
When the season started, the trio of receivers was JSN, Egbuka, and Harrison, because Julian Fleming was still nursing an injured shoulder. So once everyone is healthy, do you go from what has been a three-man rotation with Egbuka, Harrison, and Fleming to a four-man rotation? These are all obviously good problems to have, but it certainly puts the Ohio State coaching staff into a pickle.
I believe that for the next couple of weeks, the decision won’t be difficult, everyone will play; in fact, JSN should probably continue to get the fewest snaps of the top-four WRs. I don’t want him to be rushed back from injury, and obviously, Day doesn’t either. Therefore, he will most likely be eased back into the starter role without being overloaded.
The real challenge presents itself probably starting with The Game, and then into the postseason. How much will Smith-Njigba and Egbuka rotate in the slot? Will one of them move outside, pushing presumably Fleming to the sideline? Will Day instead opt for going four-wide more often?
Personally, I think that by the time the team gets to crunch time, JSN will be fully healthy and fully entrenched as a playmaker who should can never leave the field in critical moments. His postseason experience and veteran presence will prove vital for this relatively young group of extremely talented receivers, but this is one of the only traits he has that the rest of them don’t.
All four guys have been very clear this season that they are willing to do whatever it takes in order to help the team win, so I don’t anticipate there being any problems with ego or personal ambitions disrupting the room. However, I do wonder how Day and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson will be able to squeeze all of these talented players into the games.
The Buckeye offense has thrived this season on its ability to pick up chunks of yardage both on the ground and through the air, so you certainly don’t want to see Day steal plays from TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams simply to satisfy the finally full-strength receiver room. However, you obviously want the offense to take advantage of its full complement of weapons.
This is an opportunity for Day and Wilson to show some creativity in coming up with schemes and play calls to not only spread the ball around, but also to thoroughly confuse and frustrate opposing defenses. There will obviously have to be some sacrifices made by all players, but in the end, I’m just happy that I will soon get to watch the Buckeye offense at full strength.