I guess that it seems a bit odd, given the long and storied history of Ohio State football, that we’d take seriously the question above. After all, JSN has been a starter for only one year. Granted, it was a hell of a year. But do we have enough information to be talking about him in the same breath with David Boston, Cris Carter, Terry Glenn, Joey Galloway, Michael Jenkins, Chris Olave, and Michael Thomas?
Oh, yeah. I think that we do.
JSN in 2021
First, keep in mind that for at least the first half or two-thirds of the season, JSN was the No. 3 receiver. Perhaps he wasn’t covered by opponents’ best cornerbacks or safeties, but he wasn’t usually the first target either. By the end of the season, Stroud was clearly looking for him. Remember the Rose Bowl.
I called JSN’s 2021 performance a “hell of a season.” How good was it? Here are some of the receiving records that he broke. Receptions in a single season: 95. The previous high was Parris Campbell’s 90, set in 2018. Receiving yards in a single season: 1606. He beat David Boston’s 1998 record by 171 yards. Receiving yards in a game: 347 vs. Utah in the Rose Bowl. Previous record was Terry Glenn’s 253 against Pitt in 1995. Receptions in a game: 15. JSN did it twice in 2021, against Nebraska and again against Utah. Boston had 14 versus Penn State in 1997.
Average receptions per game in a season: 7.3. Olave (2020) and Boston (1998) had seasons with averages of 7.1. Average receptions per game in a career: JSN is currently first with 5.3 (just ahead of Boston’s 5.2). Given that Smith-Njigba had hardly any stats for 2020 (10 receptions for 49 yards in seven games), he’s likely to hold onto this record. JSN is also currently riding a five-game streak with 100 or more yards receiving. That ties the record with Cris Carter. 100 yards against Notre Dame will secure the record for himself.
It’s an easy case to argue, I think, that Smith-Njigba in 2021 had the greatest receiving season in Buckeye history. But one year isn’t enough to stake a claim for greatest receiver ever. There are three more criteria and sets of data that we have to examine: career performance at Ohio State, overall career performance (including the NFL), and those intangibles – qualities that are difficult to quantify but define greatness, nonetheless.
JSN’s Buckeye career
We all expect 2022 to be JSN’s final season in scarlet and gray. That will give him really only two full seasons, not the three or even four that most of the other great receivers played. That said, there are some career receiving records within reach for Smith-Njigba and some beyond even his ample reach.
With one more season to play, Smith-Njigba isn’t going to touch the career receiving touchdown mark that Olave set last year at 35. JSN sits at 10 receiving TDs heading into 2022. 26 to break the record? No way. He would have to shatter Terry Glenn’s season record of 17 by nine. The career yards per catch will be beyond him too, simply because he’ll have far more career receptions than the 80 total that Cedric Anderson (1980-83) caught to reach his impressive 21.3.
But the two most important receiving stats – number of receptions and yards gained – are within reach. If the Rose Bowl performance was any indication of how JSN plays without Olave and Garrett Wilson on the field, those records are well within reach. Career receptions: K.J. Hill (2016-19) holds the Buckeye record with 201. Boston is second with 191, Olave third at 176. Smith-Njigba currently ranks No. 23 with 105 catches. He needs 97 to break the record, two more than he had last year. Possible for sure – more likely if his teammates can help him to play 15 games in 2022.
Career receiving yards: Michael Jenkins (2000-03) reigns in this category with 2,898 yards. Again, Boston is second, Gary Williams third, Carter fourth, and Olave fifth. JSN ranks No. 22 with 1,655 yards. He would need 1,244 to set a new career mark. That’s 362 fewer yards than he gained in 2021. I think that he has better than even odds to get this one, despite likely drawing foes’ best cover guy. If he sits atop either of these career categories and holds most of the single-season records, then he’s in the running for greatest. And if he returns, surprisingly, for a fourth season in 2023, he smashes all career records.
While we might confidently predict Smith-Njigba getting drafted early in the first round, we’ll obviously have to wait 10 or even 15 years before we can assess his pro career. Of the Buckeye great receivers, Cris Carter, by far I think, enjoyed the best NFL career. He played 16 years in the League, played in 234 games, caught 1,101 passes for 13,899 yards and scored 130 touchdowns. He played in eight Pro Bowl games and was first-team All Pro twice, in 1994 and 1999. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013.
Many of the other Buckeye greats also had stellar pro careers. Here’s how I’d rank them behind Carter: Joey Galloway, Terry Glenn, Michael Thomas (and rising), Santonio Holmes, and Ted Ginn, Jr. Terry McLaurin’s three seasons promise a first-rate career. So much depends upon staying healthy over the long haul. Carter managed it, and David Boston didn’t. We’ll have to see about Thomas this year. As for JSN, I fully expect him to have a great pro career; he has all of the skills.
Clearly, it’s easy (and fun) to compare stats. There are so many of them these days. If you’re at the top of your pile, you’re great. But there are other qualities, qualities without numbers, that contribute to greatness. Are you a good teammate, helping less-experienced players, responding well to coaches’ criticisms? Are you the team’s “go-to” guy, when the game’s on the line, when a big play is needed? Can you carry the team on your back when other players might be struggling? (It’s easier, no doubt, for a quarterback or even a running back to do the team-carrying.) Are you a winner? Does the team win when you’re on the field?
As JSN assumes more of a leadership role this season, we’ll be better able to answer some of these questions and make our judgments about the intangibles. If he leads the Bucks to a national championship, we’ll have one very important answer. And if he ends his OSU career sitting as the leader in receiving yards (or receptions, or both), then I would say that Jaxon Smith-Njigba, as he heads into his pro career, is a frontrunner to go down in history as the greatest Buckeye receiver of all time.