Ohio State receivers coach Brian Hartline landed three top-50 recruits this week, and added to his reputation as an elite recruiter. Over the first four seasons Hartline has spent with the Buckeyes, the talent at wide receiver has improved each year.
The Buckeyes have had a long list of talented receivers lately, most notably Terry McLaurin, Chris Olave, and Garrett Wilson. The latter two in Olave and Wilson were back-to-back-to-back first round picks with another former Buckeye in Jameson Williams. Now entering his fifth season with Ohio State, Hartline’s room is as talented as it has ever been on paper.
Even with all of the success and talent attrition after last season, the Buckeyes still return arguably the best receiver in college football in Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Smith-Njigba is the ideal embodiment of a receiver Hartline wants. In a room with Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, Smith-Njigba still led the Buckeyes in receptions with 95, racking up a team-high 1606 receiving yards.
The traits he possesses make him well-rounded. They are also what we are going to be taking a look at today. Smith-Njigba has the speed to get over top, the ball tracking ability to win outside, and the physicality to win jump balls as well as create after the catch, making him the best receiver entering a season for the Buckeyes statistically since David Boston.
Now, let’s take a closer look at why Smith-Njigba is the best receiver in Hartline’s room, and why he could end up being the best to ever do it at Ohio State.
Smith-Njigba showcased this ability at the highest level for the Buckeyes in their match up in the Rose Bowl against Utah. Now, a lot of people have stated that Utah’s secondary was not at full strength, but this is not a skill that is measured against the defense. This ability is showcased and stands out regardless of competition level, and that is why this is the first trait we’re taking a look at.
Smith-Njigba lines up in the slot on the top side of the screen. The route he is running is a slot fade. Top side play concept is Smash-Fade, meaning the outside receiver is running a hitch, with the inside receiver running a fade on the outside of the numbers after starting in the slot. Smith-Njigba gets separation immediately and is able to get to his landmark. This gives Stroud a comfortable window between the sideline and the numbers to deliver the football to Smith-Njigba, which we get to see in the first view.
Smith-Njigba finds the ball and reacts late, making a tough, acrobatic over the shoulder grab.
In the second view, the ball tracking is showcased. The ball is thrown outside to where only Smith-Njigba can make the catch. Even with the accurate throw, this is by no means an easy catch. Due to his ability to follow the ball with his eyes, he is able to make a tough grab that keeps the defensive back out of the picture. Watching the second clip, we can see Smith-Njigba identifies the ball around the 10-yard line, and we see his eyes track the ball all the way into the catch point.
This is high level receiver play, and one area we should expect to see more from Smith-Njigba in 2022. These two clips show how his ball tracking ability make him a reliable target and a deadly deep threat in Ohio State’s passing attack.
For receivers, the ability to create after the catch is what separates solid receiving weapons from dynamic game changers. The Buckeyes needed a hero against Nebraska this season, and this time that hero came in the form of Jaxon Smith-Njigba turning a small gain into a touchdown.
The Buckeyes line up in a doubles personnel with two receivers to the short side of the field. The receivers are both running hitch routes, but that does not mean there isn’t nuance. Nebraska’s slot defender is responsible for the flats. Smith-Njigba and Olave both know this. Smith-Njigba knows he is the target to that side, which is why his get off is to the outside. It forces the defender out there faster and also creates more space in the hole Smith-Njigba wants to sit in. After creating separation, Stroud delivers a strike to Smith-Njigba quickly.
Now the real magic happens after the catch. Smith-Njigba wants to get back outside to the sideline, but the defender has the leverage to keep him inside. Smith-Njigba gives him a hard sell up the field, forcing the defender to commit. This opens up a cut to the outside. Then it is off to the races.
Overall, this play shows every aspect of why Smith-Njigba is so dangerous. His technique and athleticism keep him in control of every situation, allowing him to make big plays like this one.
This is probably Smith-Njigba’s most underrated attribute, especially sharing a room with Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave who made 50/50 balls look effortless. Adding this ability to Smith-Njigba’s already well-rounded and dangerous repertoire should not be allowed, but for being a smaller receiver, his competitiveness combined with his body control makes him a dangerous weapon when the ball is in the air.
In the play we’re looking at, Ohio State is in need of a big play heading into the fourth quarter against Oregon. They struggled to build any momentum up to that point, but Smith-Njigba was ready to make a statement. This is not really one that needs much breaking down. It really is a play that comes down to what the kids are saying these days: does he have that dawg in him?
Smith-Njigba has one-on-one coverage and runs a post route over the middle. Stroud under throws the ball a little, meaning Smith-Njigba needs to make a play. He goes over top of the defender and comes down with a tough catch.
In a receiving room with what seems like endless potential when you look at all of the recruiting rankings in there, it takes a special player to stand out above the rest. Jaxon Smith-Njigba is that player, and his well-rounded skillset is why. Having the ability to attack the defense in a variety of ways from every part of the field is what separates Smith-Njigba, and is what makes him a first round prospect heading into the 2023 NFL Draft.
This skillset is what Brian Hartline is looking for in a receiver. You can see the route running, athleticism, catch radius, and overall ability that the best of the best have whenever you watch Smith-Njigba play football. If you want a clinic on the receiver position, go put on any highlight mix of his 2021 season and you will see what elite truly looks like.
The three traits we talked about today are representative of more than just those traits. You can see his competitiveness, his technique, and how his entire skillset comes from countless hours of preparation combined with god-given ability. He was arguably the best receiver in 2021, and with further development we might see the highest receiver drafted in Ohio State history.