Football season is nearly upon us. With the opening game against Notre Dame under a month away, we are in the thick of preseason predictions, rankings and early award list candidates. So many prolific players are returning to college football this year and there is not a lack of candidates for the prestigious Heisman award. With such a crowded field for the highly sought-after honor, it feels that there is an obvious candidate that is somehow being looked over when it comes to the discussion of Heisman candidates.
Now, it should shock no one that the favorites to land are mainly quarterbacks. That honor has gone to the quarterback position 18 out of the last 21 seasons. It’s easy to see why the odds favor the man under center. But this year, place your stock in Ohio State’s junior wide receiver, Jaxon Smith-Njigba. At first glance, that doesn’t seem likely, considering the field competing with him for votes. With candidates like Bryce Young, (who won the Heisman at Alabama last year ) Ohio State’s very own quarterback (who had a tremendous season, won the Rose Bowl, and is the odd’s on favorite to win the Heisman and be drafted number one overall) and USC’s quarterback Caleb Williams transferring from Oklahoma, after receiving Heisman hype for much of the season last year) it’s easy to see how Jaxon Smith-Njigba could be lost in the national landscape at the moment.
Currently, Jaxon is ranked ninth in odds to win the Heisman at +3300, which shouldn’t feel like a slight until you realize the candidates with higher odds than in front of him. This of course does have a few exceptions. Oklahoma’s transfer quarterback Dillon Gabriel has a case to make after putting 61 touchdowns against 11 interceptions in his two years at UCF, but expecting him to do the same in the BIG 12 may not be a sure thing. Also listed ahead of him is Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers, who has never started at the college level and Clemson’s quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, who struggled at times last year, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns at nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions for the season. This all feels much more like a slight considering what Jaxon had accomplished last season.
Last season, Jaxon Smith-Njigba caught 95 passes for 1,606 yards and nine touchdowns. That alone is enough to garner attention, but it isn’t until taking a deeper dive into the larger picture as well as the second half of the season, that you fully gain an appreciation.
Last season was Jaxon’s first season with a large role with the team, and through the first six games of the season, it shows more. There were up and down games when it came to production which makes his gaudy numbers appear even more brilliant. Jaxon also split receptions with two of the greatest receivers in all of college football last year, as evidenced by where they were selected in the previous NFL Draft (Garrett Wilson was selected at number 10 overall by the New York Jets and Chris Olave was selected at number 11 overall by the New Orleans Saints). While Ohio State has had no issue recruiting and reloading incredible receiver after incredible receiver, (thanks to the tremendous recruiting and development of WR coach Brian Hartline) it is scary to think of the numbers that Jaxon could put up, now that he is the clear face of the WR room at Ohio State. Another thing benefitting Jaxon is the return of the previously mentioned C.J. Stroud, even if they are competing for votes.
The greatest look into the exciting forecast of the 2022-23 season for Jaxon was the last six games of the season. During that stretch, it was apparent that the offense had become much more comfortable in their roles and maybe none more so than Jaxon. During that stretch, (against Penn State, Nebraska, Purdue, Michigan State, Michigan and Utah) Smith-Njigba averaged a mind-blowing 175.8 yards a game, as well as a touchdown per game. The brightest of performances came in the Rose Bowl against Utah, where Jaxon caught a record-breaking 15 receptions for 347 yards and three touchdowns. That’s not only a record for the Rose Bowl but for any bowl game ever played in the history of College Football. While it would be unrealistic to expect him to put those numbers up every game, that average, as lofty as it is, is most definitely within reach of the junior wide receiver. If this were to be the case, the aforementioned average of 175.8 yards per game would give him an astounding, single-season record of 2,285 yards ( assuming a 12-game season and a big ten championship game). That would be an NCAA record and nearly 400 yards more than the last receiver to win the Heisman with two fewer games played (two playoff games for Alabama add to DeVonta Smith’s impressive 1,856 yards in the 2020 season). If this were the case, there would be quite a compelling argument to be made for Jaxon.
When predicting who comes away with various hardware, it is a science of past evidence, ability, environment, big games and forecasting jumps in progression. Considering the leap Ohio State saw from the first half to the second half of the season from their brilliant wide receiver, I believe that Jaxon is the perfect candidate to check all of those boxes. His last season is evidence of his production and ability. He will have multiple opportunities on the national stage against the likes of Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan to show that he is deserving. Lastly, forecasting jumps is never perfect. But, I am willing to bet that he makes a significant jump in touchdowns, as the primary target in the passing game with the departure of Wilson and Olave and another year to hone his talents and improve his game. If Jaxon makes a jump and his last six games of 2021-22 were any indication of the season that he will have this year, we could be witnessing one of, if not, the best season any wide receiver has ever had. So come December 11th when the Heisman trophy is handed out, don’t be surprised when Jaxon Smith-Njigba is on stage to haul in the award.