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You’re Nuts: Will Jaxon Smith-Njigba return to an important role for Ohio State this season?

The Buckeyes’ preseason WR1 has just five catches on the year as he battles a hamstring injury.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Rose Bowl Game - Ohio State v Utah Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.

In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.

This week’s topic: Will Jaxon Smith-Njigba return to an important role for Ohio State this season?

Josh’s Take

Many Ohio State football fans were frothing at the mouth (figuratively, I hope) Saturday morning, hyped up for the much-anticipated return of star wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba. The record-breaking wideout made brief cameos against Notre Dame and Toledo earlier this season, but had missed most of September and October with a lingering hamstring issue.

OSU seemingly took a cautious approach – holding him out through the Buckeyes’ bye week – for which they were supposed to be rewarded this past weekend. Unfortunately, the return lasted roughly 20 snaps, and ended with a concerning visual. JSN limped off the field after a deep route, ending his day and bringing into question the remainder of his season.

Now, before I rain on everybody’s parade, it must be pointed out that Ryan Day attributed JSN’s exit to reaching a snap count. Let’s say he was telling the truth. Or, better yet, let’s at least say he had very little information minutes after walking off the field, and is under no obligation to fill us in on the health and/or well-being of his players. But Gene and I discussed the whole snap count scenario on our recap podcast, and neither one of us came away from the conversation a true believer in Day’s statement.

We saw what we saw. And that was JSN walking gingerly on the sideline after nearly a half of unproductive (by his standards) football. So what does it mean going forward? I have a feeling Gene and I will differ slightly in our opinions.

I believe we have seen the last of JSN as a WR1 for the Buckeyes. Not because he has fallen off in skill, or fallen behind Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka, and Julian Fleming on a hypothetical depth chart. I just think that hamstring and lower body injuries in general can be very tricky, and there is too much at stake for him to come back at anything less than 110 percent. That goes for JSN, as well as the Ohio State team. Furthermore, I do not think there is enough time in the 2022 season for him to both reach full health and also reintegrate himself back into the OSU offense. I wish that were not the case, and perhaps he will prove me wrong, but I think the Buckeyes need to prepare for Penn State and all future opponents as if they will not have JSN firmly in the fold.

Through seven games, Ohio State has not skipped a beat without their stud WR. This is not say his presence would not make them something beyond lethal on offense, but they have clearly figured out a new offense. One that is balanced and spreads the wealth. Harrison Jr., Egbuka, and Fleming have carved out new roles, and become stars in their own right. Add in the development of Cade Stover, and the Buckeyes have all the ingredients necessary for a wildly productive aerial attack. Another dynamic pass catcher would be a luxury at this point, not a need.

Even if JSN avoided a true re-aggravation of his hamstring, he had to have tweaked something against Iowa, right? A knee, an ankle, a quad? He was clearly hobbled. So this is where timing comes into play for me. OSU will be playing their eighth game of the season this weekend, and JSN does not appear to be 100 percent — due to some sort of malady. If he sits against Penn State, does that get him ready for Northwestern? If so, do the Buckeyes need him? I think they have proven otherwise. This could just keep going and going, and before you know it, TTUN will be visiting Columbus. So are you telling me the Buckeyes would risk on-field chemistry and a shot at the Big Ten/National Championship by trying to reintroduce JSN into the starting lineup then? I really don’t think so.

Gene, I want JSN to be involved this season. He is one of my top-5 players to watch from the last decade or so. And he is arguably the smoothest WR developed by Brian Hartline. I just think time is working against him and the Buckeyes, when it comes to the former making a large contribution to this year’s team. I just don’t see it. However, I think there is one perfect scenario left, and I will melt your brain with it real quick.

What if JSN comes back as a super-sub in College Park, Maryland? The week before The Rivalry, he makes a triumphant return, with no absolutely no intention of starting or being force fed the ball. Instead, he absorbs about 10 snaps each from Harrison Jr., Egbuka, and Fleming, keeping them as the focal point(s) of the passing game, and getting his own feet wet. Then, he plays the same role for the duration of the Buckeyes’ season. Imagine arguably the best WR in CFB taking on a sixth man or specialist reliever role for this team! I think that could be the best of both worlds for both JSN and this OSU team. He is able to come back and contribute as some secret weapon, but on-field chemistry is unaffected.

The 2022 season might be a lost one for JSN. Unfortunately, it happens. But he is a special player and by all accounts, one hell of a teammate, so I really hope he gets another shot — when fully healthy. If the timing never works out, his presence on the field might become more ceremonial than anything, but it won’t be as if he did not contribute as a mentor and leader.

Gene’s Take

Coming into the year we expected a huge year from Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and rightfully so. In an offense that featured two first round NFL Draft picks at wide receiver in Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, Smith-Njigba still managed to lead the team with a whopping 1,606 yards on a team-high 95 catches — 25 more than the next highest player. With Olave and Wilson obviously now in the pros, everyone figured JSN would put together a massive campaign in 2022 en route to being the top wide receiver taken in the 2023 NFL Draft.

Unfortunately, an injury sustained early on in the season opener against Notre Dame have dashed any hopes of a big season for Smith-Njigba. Ohio State is now seven games into its regular season schedule, and JSN has played in only three of them, recording five catches for 43 yards across the few quarters he has appeared in thus far. The Buckeyes’ passing offense has remained excellent, led by C.J. Stroud and his new trio of stud wideouts in Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming, and while it would be tough to be much better than OSU has been through the air thus far, it’s hard to think the offense wouldn’t be even more impressive with a healthy JSN.

We thought that after the bye week Smith-Njigba would be healthy enough to return to his normal workload, but that was not the case. JSN played a total of 22 snaps in the game against Iowa, recording one catch for seven yards before exiting with what appeared to be a re-aggravation of the injury but was later called a “snap count” by Ryan Day. Either way, with just five games remaining in the regular season for Ohio State, we have still not seen even one full quarter of a 100% health Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

I am still holding out hope that JSN will return at some point this season and play a massive role for the Buckeyes in their offense. While it is certainly a possibility that he could choose to sit out the remainder of the year to prepare for the draft, where he would likely still be a first round selection based on his production last season, I just don’t think he’s that kind of guy. Smith-Njigba wants to help Ohio State accomplish the ultimate goal of winning a championship, and while he hasn’t been available much throughout the first half of the year, I think he could be the Buckeyes’ X-factor down the stretch.

It is going to take some time to work him back into the fold, as Stroud has gotten into a bit of a rhythm now with the usual trio of receivers plus a guy like Cade Stover, who has also made his fair share of plays in the passing game. I dont think Ohio State can afford to force the ball to JSN if/when he does finally return to 100%, but I think he provides a valuable asset to the team and a different skillset from that of the current receiver core. The one thing the Buckeyes are currently missing in the passing game is a true underneath-route sort of guy who can catch the ball on a short pass over the middle and pick up big yardage after the catch. Egbuka and Fleming have shown the ability to do a bit of that, but JSN is a bit faster and shiftier with the ball in his hands.

While nothing is wrong with the current Ohio State offense, it couldn’t possibly hurt to add one of the nation’s best pass-catchers to the depth chart. I wouldn’t rule out his return to being the team’s WR1 if he can get back to full strength, but I dont think he really needs to be that to provide value. I’m interested to see how big a factor he plays this weekend against Penn State, especially after looking hobbled on the sideline after his final snap against Iowa, but I dont think the Buckeyes need to rush things. After the Nittany Lions are games against Northwestern, Indiana and Maryland — three should-be easy victories — and so there is still time to ease him back into the rotation before maybe letting him loose in the season finale against Michigan.

We saw Chris Olave come out of nowhere and have a huge season finale against the Wolverines before he fully burst onto the scene, and while JSN is obviously a far more proven commodity than Olave was at that point, I wouldn’t put it past Ryan Day to catch Jim Harbaugh’s team off-guard with a fully-healthy Jaxon Smith-Njigba making a ton of big plays in The Game after taking things slowly against a few lesser opponents.