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How Jaxon Smith-Njigba became Ohio State’s next great receiver

By Laken Litman
FOX Sports College Football Writer

Jaxon Smith-Njigba ran a fade route, looked over his right shoulder, and caught an impossible touchdown pass from C.J. Stroud. He celebrated by doing the ‘Griddy’ dance as Ohio State took its first lead over Utah in last year’s Rose Bowl.

“It was an exceptional play,” says Brian Hartline, a former Ohio State and NFL wideout turned his alma mater’s passing game coordinator and receivers coach. “When that happened, it was one of those ‘Wow’ moments. And it sticks with me.”

It wowed Ohio State alum Kirk Herbstreit, too, who was calling the game, a 48-45 Buckeyes win.

“You don’t teach what he just did,” Herbstreit said on the broadcast. “The instincts to look over his shoulder, almost like Willie Mays [catching] that football and [making] it look like he’s at a practice on a Wednesday.”

Smith-Njigba, who was named the game’s MVP, smashed a bunch of Rose Bowl records that day: 15 catches for 347 yards (also an all-time bowl game record, program single-game record and the second-most in Big Ten history) and three touchdowns.

That performance came on the heels of a stellar season in which the then-sophomore set all kinds of Buckeyes records with 95 receptions (fifth most in Big Ten history) and 1,606 receiving yards (breaking a 20-year-old conference receiving yards record) on a team that featured first-round NFL Draft picks Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave.

Funny thing about that receiver trio — Wilson and Olave, who were drafted Nos. 10 and 11 overall, respectively, believe Smith-Njigba is the best of the bunch. 

“He’s supernatural,” Wilson told Herbstreit in an interview last year.

Ohio State is counting on it.

Last year, the Buckeyes thought they had enough talent to win it all. They went 11-2 and won the Rose Bowl, but didn’t beat Michigan, didn’t win the Big Ten, didn’t make the College Football Playoff and thus didn’t get to play for a national title. The team felt the season was a failure.

Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s 2021 highlights

Check out the highlights from Ohio State receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s 2021 season before the Buckeyes take on Notre Dame to start 2022.

This year, it’s championship or bust for Ohio State, which begins its quest Saturday hosting Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. ET). And as Smith-Njigba enters his third year, he’s a big key to those high hopes. He’s now one of the top players in college football — a Heisman Trophy candidate (+3000 via FOX Bet) who will be playing alongside two others in teammates Stroud (+225), a finalist last year, and running back TreVeyon Henderson (+4000). He also has a shot at winning the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best receiver.

And luckily for Ohio State, Smith-Njigba has been preparing his whole life for this moment. 

[College football Week 1 preview]

*** *** ***

Sports were central in Smith-Njigba’s family. His father, Maada, played linebacker at Stephen F. Austin, and his older brother, Canaan, who Jaxon calls his hero, was drafted by the New York Yankees out of high school and now plays left field for the Pittsburgh Pirates

From a young age, Maada trained his sons near their home in Rockwall, Texas, 23 miles northeast of Dallas. After he and the boys’ mom divorced, Maada had to figure out what to do with his sons during his time with them. Working for the Dallas Fire Department, he lived in a one-bedroom apartment and didn’t own a TV. Going to the movies or Chuck E. Cheese wasn’t in the cards financially. So he leaned on what he knew best, which was sports.

Jaxon Smith-Njigba, from his youth football days. (Photo courtesy of Maada Smith-Njigba)

“My goal was to tire them out so when we got home, all I had to do was feed them, bathe them and put them to sleep,” Maada says. “Then they started getting on [local] teams and I was like, ‘Oh my god, these guys are good! They can play!’”

Every day he put Jaxon and Canaan, who is two-and-a-half years older, through workouts he made up or mimicked from his playing days. In the summertime, there were two-a-days starting at 6 a.m. to beat the Texas heat. During the school year, he’d pick the boys up and take them to Walmart Hill (a steep hill behind the Walmart across from Rockwall High School, where Jaxon went), where they’d do hill repeats. They’d also swim, box, lift weights at the gym and work on explosiveness by jumping in the apartment while wearing a weighted vest. 

“It was all day, every day,” Smith-Njigba says. “We’d wake up and get ready for the workout. That was our lives.” 

As the kids got older, Maada made the workouts higher stakes. He’d tell Jaxon to catch 12 passes or run 15 routes and catch 90% of the passes before dinner, or instruct Canaan to field 50 balls and put them in the bucket. He’d kick a soccer ball at a 45-degree angle and make the boys cut it off, control the ball and score. Sometimes they’d add a stopwatch and see how fast they could do all of it.

Maada was “strict with all the best intentions,” says the boys’ mother, Jami Smith. The drills were tough but also fun, and Jaxon and Canaan always embraced the challenge.

“We were competitors,” Canaan says. “We didn’t dread it. It was more like, this is the work we put in so when we play other kids in the neighborhood, we’ll be better than everyone.

“… Our best days are when we’re all together, having a good workout. Us competing, running up that hill — and obviously I was bigger, stronger and faster so I was beating Jaxon — playing one-on-one, my dad being the all-time quarterback. Those were the best days.”

For Maada, it was a chance to bond.

“If we were sitting on the couch watching TV, they’re not gonna talk to me,” Maada says. “But when I’m throwing baseballs to Canaan, he’s going to tell me about girls or this and that. Same with Jaxon. When we’re doing drills, we take a break and then it’s, ‘Hey, who are you taking to the Valentine’s dance?’ And he’ll talk. That was a great time for us to really talk and really get to know them.”

As a kid, Smith-Njigba worked out on a track to improve his 40 time. (Photo courtesy of Maada Smith-Njigba)

Jaxon was also honing his creativity. When he wasn’t playing outside, he was setting up imaginary football games in his living room. Sometimes with Canaan, but if he wasn’t around, Jaxon didn’t mind playing alone. He used pillows for the sidelines and practiced making acrobatic catches while keeping his toes inside the fluffy boundaries. He used couch cushions as defenders he’d evade. He put socks in his waistband and pretended someone pulled his flag. He wore an imaginary headset and challenged plays. He was the offense, defense and referee.

“He’d very much visualize a game in his head,” his mother says. “He would allow cushions to tackle him or chase him. If Canaan wasn’t playing, he’d throw the ball to himself and that was a catch. He’d maneuver through obstacles that he created with whatever he could find in the house.”

And of course he’d dress the part. If he was playing offense, he’d wear one color jersey or oversized T-shirt and then do a wardrobe change on defense.

“He was very obsessed with wristbands,” Jami says. “He was very particular about the way his socks fit. And he’s still like this today. He plans out what he’s going to wear.”

Jaxon always watched a lot of football, either on TV or when his parents took him to Kyle Field — he grew up a Texas A&M fan — or AT&T Stadium. It continues today. When former Alabama and current Philadelphia Eagles receiver DeVonta Smith won the Heisman, Jaxon says he, Wilson and Olave started watching his film “immediately.” 

“I don’t know if the word is manifest, but he watches so much film and so many games that he would just try to repeat what he was seeing,” Jami says. “He does visualize first what he thinks is going to happen in a game. Then he plays that out in different scenarios, making different catches and running different routes.”

*** *** ***

Beyond the football lessons imparted from his father, Smith-Njigba carries something else from his family with him on the field. 

Smith-Njigba was named MVP of the Rose Bowl after making 15 catches for 347 yards against Utah. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

When Jaxon’s grandfather, John, came to the United States from Sierra Leone in the 1970s, he brought the surname Njigba but wanted to fit in. So he adopted the last name of one of his sponsors and went by John Smith. The next generation included Njigba on all of their legal documents, but didn’t use it. Up until high school, Jaxon went by Jaxon Smith.

Jaxon had a close relationship with his grandpa, and after he died in 2014, Jaxon said he wanted to represent his name correctly. When he got to high school and was a freshman playing varsity football, he wanted Smith-Njigba on the back of his jersey. Canaan did the same when he was traded from the Yankees to the Pirates in January 2021.

“It’s our blood,” Jaxon says. “My dad made sure we knew where we came from and our background and how our grandfather had to work for everything and change his name to get jobs. We know things aren’t going to be given to us. We know we have to work for it.”

*** *** ***

Though he plays a position that’s inherently flashy, Smith-Njigba is the opposite of rah-rah. Maada and Hartline have tried to get him to be more vocal, but it’s not his natural MO.

“He’s definitely a by-example kind of guy,” Hartline says. “He’ll give you plenty of clips to use as an example, but he won’t always speak up if something is irritating him or if he sees a bad clip from somebody else. 

“I think it’s the modern athlete. Sometimes guys are such good friends and have developed such a brotherhood and camaraderie that it’s really hard to step out of that and be critical. I’ve encouraged him to do that. He doesn’t want it to come off the wrong way. But he realizes the more he does that, the more he’s helping that athlete.”

The lack of tooting his own horn may be a reason he wasn’t highly recruited. Smith-Njigba had a stellar high school career, but early on he just had a few offers from Colorado and Iowa State. None of the “biggies,” as his dad says, took notice.

“Honestly, Jaxon is not very loud,” Maada says. “He’s not a social media guy. He’s a Friday night guy.”

Smith-Njigba warms up prior a game against Rutgers last October. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

He also wasn’t highly rated among recruiting services. Entering his senior year, 247Sports had him as the No. 62 overall prospect, though he eventually climbed up to No. 29. Receivers ranked ahead of him included teammate Julian Fleming and LSU’s Kayshon Boutte

“Coming up, I wasn’t a five star until [senior year],” Smith-Njigba says. “I was always in the mix, but my dad instilled that confidence in me and my brother, that we were the best. No one is better than us.”

Smith-Njigba made varsity his freshman year at Rockwall and started his sophomore through senior seasons. He was the leading receiver in Dallas as a junior and showed up in big games, like when he had 13 catches for 289 yards and three touchdowns in a one-score game against Longview, who went on to win the 2018 state championship. He also caught 14 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns in a playoff game against powerhouse Allen.

It was around this time that Ohio State courted him hard. Smith-Njigba felt seen and committed during a November 2018 campus visit. He was actually supposed to visit Notre Dame the following weekend, but canceled those plans. 

[Week 1 by the numbers]

“We didn’t know too much about Ohio in Texas,” Maada says. “We watch Texas A&M, we watch Texas, we watch Oklahoma. But Jaxon said [of Ohio State], ‘You come here, you do well and you go to the NFL.’ Those were his words.”

Smith-Njigba piled on more impressive numbers as a senior and was named Texas 6A Player of the Year. He had 252 yards and five touchdowns in a playoff win over Allen and ended his four years with 5,346 yards and 82 touchdowns. 

Word eventually got around and then-Texas coach Tom Herman called, A&M’s Jimbo Fisher visited and then-Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley popped up, too.

But, Maada says, “They just showed up too late.” 

*** *** ***

As the 2022 college football season begins, Smith-Njigba is in every best player conversation. He plays for a national title contender that’s more committed to the passing game with weapons all over the field. 

Stroud, who is Smith-Njigba’s closest friend on the team, has options if his buddy is double-covered, but it’s not often that Smith-Njigba can’t shake a guy loose. As head coach Ryan Day said at Big Ten media days this summer, “Some guys just run routes the way that they’re drawn up in the playbook, and then there are some guys that just get open.” Smith-Njigba is the latter.

“I think the biggest thing I’ve seen from him is his ability to beat leverage and beat the advantage that defenders have on him to be consistently productive,” Hartline says. “And I think there hasn’t been too many situations where he couldn’t get open or execute. He always finds a way, whether it’s running the route to be open or catching the football around somebody. 

“It’s really hard for anybody, especially at this level, with the way he plays.”

C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba celebrate after defeating Utah in the Rose Bowl. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Hartline, who has worked with Jameson Wilson, Terry McLaurin and KJ Hill, considers Smith-Njigba “probably the best receiver that I’ve ever coached,” saying, “I played with a lot of great ones and this guy puts himself in a lot of those conversations.” He’s tough, mature, plays hard and winning matters to him. He loves to talk smack to Stroud when they’re playing H-O-R-S-E — the QB-WR duo spent a lot of time together this summer, going on vacation and visiting each other’s respective families in Dallas and Los Angeles.

But he also doesn’t mind doing the work.

“He prides himself on doing everything from blocking at a high level to catching at a high level,” Hartline says. “It doesn’t matter what the job description is, Jaxon is going to do it and try to be the best at it. I think his competitiveness and desire to always win on every rep, to always be open and always make the play is something that carries him a long way.”

[CFB odds: How to bet Ohio State-Notre Dame]

Day also sees an unusual talent.

“Jaxon is a special player,” the Buckeyes coach says. “He has a unique skill of changing direction, short area quickness, setting up receivers or setting up DBs, ball skills, his spatial awareness is off the charts. And he’s tough and he’s competitive.”

That comes from all those hours spent training with his brother and father – a payoff the world witnessed during a Rose Bowl performance Canaan called “magical,” though not surprising.

“It’s testimony to everything we’ve ever done in our lives and been through and accomplished,” Canaan says. “I was thankful he had that moment. The experience was amazing. 

“But the performance itself, well, I’ve seen it too many times and know how many more times he’s going to do it.”

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.

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