Ohio State football: Wideout Smith-Njigba, cornerbacks remain uncertain for Rutgers game

COLUMBUS — When Jaxon Smith-Njigba went out of Ohio State’s season opener against Notre Dame because of a leg injury OSU football coach Ryan Day was calm on the outside but under the surface things were less peaceful and placid.

“We had a curve ball thrown at us without Jaxon. There certainly was a lot in the game plan to target No. 11 (Smith-Njigba) in that game. Then he was out and I was like, ‘Oh boy,’ ” Day said on Tuesday at his weekly press conference.

“I didn’t have a long list of what if Jaxon goes out early in the game. I got caught a little bit there. But the guys (OSU’s offensive coaches) figured it out and some players stepped up. From there, we built,” he said.

Smith-Njigba caught 95 passes for 1,606 yards last season. So far this season he has 4 catches for 36 yards while being on the field only for parts of the opener and against Toledo two weeks ago.

He did not play in No. 3 OSU’s 52-21 win over Wisconsin last Saturday and it would be surprising if he plays when the Buckeyes (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) go against Rutgers (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Ohio Stadium.

Day said the decisions that Smith-Njigba would not play against Arkansas State and Wisconsin and that he could play against Toledo relied on the opinion of Ohio State’s medical staff and information from the player.

“We always refer to the trainers and to the doctors and then get the feedback from the player,” Day said. “And we try to do the best we can to keep them as safe as we can in those moments, and we’ll continue to do that.

“I know he’s frustrated. But we’re not as far away as we think. And if he just has the mindset of showing up every day and getting as much treatment as he can and takes care of his body, this will be behind us soon, and we’ve still got a lot of football to play,” Day said.

“He’s struggling, he wants to play. He’s one of the more competitive players I’ve been around. But rarely does it go the way you expect it to go. That’s just life in general. Life’s gonna throw adversity our way. And we control the response.”

Day said he did not regret playing Smith-Njigba against Toledo and that the decision if he plays Saturday would be up to the medical staff and Smith-Njigba.

Ohio State’s starting cornerbacks, Denzel Burke and Cam Brown, also did not play against Wisconsin. And Jordan Hancock, another cornerback expected to get a lot of playing time, has not played in OSU’s first four games because of a long term injury.

“We’re hoping to have at least Cam and Denzel back. I don’t think we’ll see Jordan for another week or so. But we’ll see,” Day said. “We’ll evaluate it and get a better feel for it later in the week.”

When those veteran cornerbacks were unavailable against Wisconsin, freshman Jyaire Brown and redshirt freshman Jakailin Johnson started and played well.

“I give a lot of of credit to (cornerbacks coach) Tim Walton and (defensive coordinator) Jim (Knowles) for getting those guys ready and then for Jyaire and JK to step up the way they did, I’m very proud of them,” Day said.

“These guys both practiced all spring and all preseason. I don’t think they missed a practice. The only way to get better is to practice and they did. When we put them in the game the whole team believed in them because they saw it in practice. We knew they weren’t going to be perfect but they played very well. They’re both very talented.”

Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414.

Jim Naveau has covered local and high school sports for The Lima News since 1978 and Ohio State football since 1992. His OSU coverage appears in more than 30 newspapers. Naveau, a Miami University graduate, also worked at the Greenville Advocate and the Piqua Daily Call. He has seen every boys state basketball tournament since 1977. Reach him at [email protected] or 567-242-0414.