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Slot machines: Buckeyes' Jaxon Smith-Njigba joins trend of top receivers playing inside

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AP Preseason All-America Offense Football

Ohio State wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba plays from the slot on nearly 80% of his snaps, creating challenges and mismatches that Badgers will have to account for on Saturday. 

Badgers football beat reporter Colten Bartholomew and columnist Jim Polzin preview Wisconsin's toughest regular season matchup in 2022 when the Badgers head to Columbus to take on No. 3 Ohio State Saturday.

Cedrick Dort Jr. had nothing but praise for the receiver he expects to match up with often Saturday.

The senior cornerback has adopted a new position since transferring to the University of Wisconsin (2-1), and he’s aware his first Big Ten Conference game comes with an assignment against one of the best players in the country. Dort, the Badgers’ nickel back, will have to square off with No. 3 Ohio State (3-0) junior preseason All-American Jaxon Smith-Njigba in a duel that could determine if UW has a chance late in the game or it’s a long, quiet plane ride home.

Dort faced a conveyer belt of future pros when he was an outside cornerback at Kentucky, pitting his skills against those of Alabama’s future Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and his future second-round-pick teammate John Metchie III. Dort cherishes these moments of battling the nation’s best.

“You’ve got to love it,” Dort said. “It definitely brings the fun to the game. I'm just ready to roll, ready to prove what I could do, ready to prove what this secondary could do as we come to this challenge. So I can't wait.”

The Buckeyes putting Smith-Njigba — their leading receiver last season with 95 catches and 1,606 yards despite having two first-round NFL draft picks ahead of him on the depth chart — in the slot in the first place is a sign of a change in how football is played.

Teams, including UW, are creating new ways to get their top pass-catchers into space and that starts by giving them room to operate from the slot.

“Definitely an adjustment within all levels of football, really,” UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “You go from high school all the way up to the NFL level, you're seeing more and more dynamic receivers in the slot, where 10 years ago, not that it was an afterthought, but it definitely was a different matchup in the slot.

“So that's where football is going, you realize that there's a whole lot of space that those guys can manipulate. And when you get smart players that are crafty in their route running, and they have a lot of space, shockingly that works out pretty well for an offense.”

There are some obvious advantages for an offense putting its best receivers into the slot. It gives them flexibility to release inside or outside of their defender off the line of scrimmage. Outside releases can be more difficult because of the limited space available when a receiver is lined up on the outer edges of the offense, and cornerbacks can use the sideline to their advantage if they maintain proper technique.

Other strategies like bubble screens and jet motions are easier for an offense to employ with a top option in the slot. That alignment also can force a defense’s hand in showing its coverage.

“If he aligns in the slot and it’s zone, he’s matched up on a safety,” UW senior safety John Torchio said. “While our safeties like to say we’re really athletic, sometimes receivers might get us there.”

Smith-Njigba, who has been nursing a hamstring injury since the first half of OSU’s opener against Notre Dame, has been lined up in the slot 79.1% of his career offensive plays for the Buckeyes, per Pro Football Focus. UW’s Chimere Dike, the team’s leader in catches (nine) and receiving yards (172) has been in the slot on exactly half of his offensive snaps, but 78.1% of his routes run have come from the slot, per PFF.

“Historically, (it was) could you get a guy that's got real quick feet and can he separate?” coach Paul Chryst said of the evolution of slot receivers. “You certainly still value that. Then I think you look for a guy that can handle that. There's so much on everyone's plate — who's the guy that feels comfortable in there and kind of has an idea?

“And I think experience helps you kind of with understanding spacing and understanding zones and the holes and how do you win on different leverages in man to man. A big part of it is how do you get experience in there, the guys that are equipped to deal with the number of different things that you see?”

UW’s secondary hasn’t been whole yet this season and won’t be against OSU. Senior cornerback Alexander Smith will miss his fourth game as he recovers from a right hamstring injury. Smith was expected to be one of the Badgers’ top outside cornerbacks, so his absence will be felt against OSU’s passing attack (358.3 yards per game).

Defending Smith-Njigba in the slot will not be solely on Dort. Linebackers, safeties and other corners will be sure to identify where No. 11 is and communication across the board will be critical, Dort said.

“The one thing I've been preaching about (Smith-Njigba) watching him is he's very smart,” Dort said. “He's definitely one of the smartest receivers I’ve ever studied, just by how he understands the defenses, how he reads the defenses. For him to do what he does, he picks holes in all the defenses.

“Playing with these guys (on UW’s defense) more and more in game-like settings and things like that, you kind of get a feel for one another. Like me and (senior cornerback) Jay Shaw, when we’re on the same side, we kind of play off each other really well, just off our veteran instincts.”

Leonhard will likely throw different looks at Smith-Njigba aside from Dort. Safeties like Torchio could line up over him, or an outside linebacker like Nick Herbig could line up in the space between the tackle and the slot receiver to take away the quick slants or be the first in pursuit on a screen. A variety of coverages keeps Smith-Njigba and quarterback C.J. Stroud, a Heisman finalist last season, from getting too comfortable with what UW is doing on defense.

Whatever the plan on a particular play, keeping Smith-Njigba covered is crucial, Torchio said.

“Coach Leonhard’s got a good plan,” Torchio said, “I'm excited to play it.”

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