This has been a year full of injuries for the Buckeyes, who are just over halfway through the season they want to have.
Just about every position group has lost somebody for a significant period of time, with the most notable name among them being junior receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
Smith-Njigba injured his hamstring in the season opener against Notre Dame. He then missed the Buckeyes’ second game against Arkansas State before suiting up again in week three against Toledo. He played sparingly against the Rockets, and appeared to have suffered a setback in that game.
Smith-Njigba then missed the next three games for the Buckeyes. He played about 20 snaps against Iowa, but was removed following an incompletion where he appeared to aggravate something with his leg. Smith-Njigba then missed this past weekend’s game at Penn State.
So far this season, he has caught a total of five passes for 43 yards and zero touchdowns.
You would be hard-pressed to find anybody who expects to see Smith-Njigba any time soon, especially not on a rainy field at Northwestern this weekend, but head coach Ryan Day is still hopeful to see him suit up again for the Buckeyes this season.
“Absolutely,” Day said. “Yes.”
He was then asked if he thought Ohio State could still achieve their goals without Smith-Njigba.
“I think we can. But at the same time, we’d love to have him back, as I’m sure you can imagine,” he said. “But this team is working hard. And that’s why we build depth because you just don’t know. And I’m sure that there’s more adversity coming our way. So we’re gonna rely on our leadership. And we’re into November now, so you just never know what’s coming. And I think we build up some hardness to us and we’ve got to keep building on that as well.”
While Smith-Njigba’s absence and stunted appearances have been difficult to navigate, the Buckeyes have handled it pretty well. Sophomores Marvin Harrison, Jr. and Emeka Egbuka have both stepped up this season. Harrison is third in the Big Ten with 48 receptions and 783 yards receiving. His 10 touchdowns are tops in the conference. Egbuka, meanwhile, has taken over for Smith-Njigba in the slot and has handled himself very well. He is currently fifth in the league with 47 receptions, second with 788 yards receiving, and third with seven touchdowns.
For a comparison, a year ago after eight games, Smith-Njigba had posted 35 receptions for 648 yards and three touchdowns. It was the final six games of the season, however, where he really blew up. In those final games he totaled 60 receptions for 958 yards and six scores.
So much potential was shown down the stretch and there was so much expected of him this year, but nobody expected more than Jaxon Smith-Njigba himself.
How is he handling the difficulties of missing so much time?
“He’s beating himself up a little bit,” receivers coach Brian Hartline said on Tuesday. “He’s been better this week, I’ll say that. I think I could echo what he’s saying if he was here standing in front. He wants to play in the worst way and he’s frustrated. That being said, he’s done a great job of not being a distraction and picking the guys up and staying locked in and FaceTiming them before the game on Saturday. Like all those things have been awesome. But I know as a competitor, he’s frustrated and he wants to get back. But I think overall, he’s doing okay.”
As to Hartline’s level of confidence that he will see Smith-Njigba on the field again, he did not hesitate to answer.
“Huge level of confidence,” he said.
The Buckeyes have three games left before they host Michigan on Nov. 26. They will be at Northwestern this weekend, then host Indiana before heading off to Maryland. Ohio State will be heavy favorites in all three of those games, which could make the Michigan game an agreeable target for all parties.
If that scenario can come to pass, it would certainly make Jaxon Smith-Njigba an agreeable target for Buckeye quarterback CJ Stroud.