INDIANAPOLIS — C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba met the media Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine with eyes on their futures.
But in a change of pace from most interviews, the former Ohio State standouts also both admitted some regrets from last season.
For Smith-Njigba, the lament was trying to come back too soon from a hamstring injury that ultimately limited him to three games.
“Definitely wish I would have just been more patient,” the junior from Texas said in his first interviews since announcing he would not play in Ohio State’s College Football Playoff semifinal against Georgia in December. “But I’m a competitor. Wanted to be out there.”
After being injured in the season-opening win over Notre Dame, he sat out the second game of the season against Arkansas State before giving it a go briefly against Toledo in week three.
Smith-Njigba returned for game seven against Iowa but again aggravated the injury, and that was the last he would be seen in an Ohio State uniform.
“Very frustrating last year,” he said. “Never really had an injury that put me out for games or even practices or stuff like that. But I feel like I’m gonna come out a better person, better man, better player. So I’m definitely thankful. Just looking at it as a positive. And I think it will be beneficial for me at the end of the day.”
Personal growth aside, the impact on Smith-Njigba’s draft stock remains to be seen.
A year ago, he was being talked about as better than former teammates Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, who went 10th and 11th overall in the 2022 draft.
Entering the week of the combine, he was 20th on the Pro Football Focus big board and 13th in a consensus top 100 compiled by The Athletic.
“I just think my playmaking ability is second to none in this draft,” he said. “I see myself as a top-five player, not just receiver. I see myself as a top-five player in this draft, just being able to make plays and given the opportunities. You throw me the ball seven to nine times, I can win you the game. And I think that speaks for itself.”
Smith-Njigba’s injury did not erase his monster sophomore season in which he caught caught 95 passes for 1,606 yards, but it did prevent him from proving he could be more than a slot receiver.
Stroud also entered last season with high expectations from a draft standpoint, and he largely met them.
One exception during the season was a question about whether or not he could beat teams when he had to move in the pocket.
He answered that in the CFP semifinal against Georgia when he ran for 34 yards and made multiple throws off scrambles, but was it too little, too late?
“I’ll be honest, I told (teams) like I’ll tell y’all: I didn’t do it a lot in college and I feel like I should have,” Stroud said. “It’s something I do regret. I feel like I could have done it a lot more, but I think when you turn on the film and you really watch what I do, and you really look at film game to game, I have used my athleticism not only just in the Georgia game where I did it a lot. I’ve done it in every other game. I’ve had tough third-down runs. I’ve had tough fourth-down runs.
“But there were times I didn’t run the ball when maybe I should have. I feel like that’s something that I learned and that’s what football is about. It’s about stepping back up to the plate and going back and working hard and fixing those problems. That’s something I plan to fix and I’ll show them my athleticism. I’ve done it before on film, but since people don’t think I can do it, I’m going to do it again.”
Stroud also confirmed he truly considered coming back for a fourth season in Columbus rather than entering the draft, as he was widely expected to do all year.
“I was honestly going to come back to school,” Stroud said. “It was really hard for me to leave a place like Ohio State where it takes time to get to where I was at. It takes a lot of heart and a lot of trust-building and a lot of camaraderie off the field. It’s something you can’t just throw in the trash right away. I don’t feel like I did that. Coming into the league was a smart decision for me, but it was really hard.”
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