Ohio State football receiver Emeka Egbuka steps up in larger role to start season
The first touchdown catch of Emeka Egbuka’s career, a grab in last week’s season-opening win over Notre Dame, felt familiar.
“We’ve thrown and caught that ball a thousand times in practice,” he said. “Especially a lot throughout that week.”
It was in the first quarter when Egbuka ran a route toward the sideline as a pass from quarterback C.J. Stroud arrived in his grasp.
“C.J. put it on the outside shoulder in the perfect place where it had to be,” Egbuka said. “And then there was no one there when I turned up.”
Running for more than 20 yards down the sideline, Egbuka charged toward a pylon in the end zone, beating safety Houston Griffith before he could prevent him from crossing the goal line.
Egbuka, who made nine catches for 90 yards with a touchdown to lead the Buckeyes, broke out at the right time.
Emeka Egbuka could fill hole left by Jaxon Smith-Njigba for Ohio State
He gave Stroud a favorite target in place of Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who was sidelined with an apparent hamstring injury after absorbing a hard hit on Ohio State’s second drive.
“I was just really concerned about the team win,” Egbuka said, “and that was the best part of my night. It didn't matter if I caught touchdown. It didn't matter if I had any catches at all.”
If Smith-Njigba remains out for Saturday’s game against Arkansas State, Egbuka could continue to see an increased role in the passing game.
The status of Smith-Njigba remains uncertain. He left practice Wednesday night in a helmet and pads, but he will need to be fully recovered before making a return, coach Ryan Day said.
“Obviously we'd love to have Jaxon,” said Egbuka. “But at the end of the day, everyone in Buckeye Nation can be extremely confident with who (wide receivers) coach (Brian Hartline) puts on the field, and we're ready to execute everything depending on who we have or not.”
Egbuka, a sophomore who was the nation’s top-ranked receiver recruit in the 2021 class, also offers some versatility as the Buckeyes prepare for the possibility of being without Smith-Njigba.
He can line up in the slot, as he did on 23 out of 71 snaps against Notre Dame, according to data from Pro Football Focus. It's in that way he most directly fills Smith-Njigba’s shoes.
But in most practices, Egbuka said his reps are evenly split between outside receiver and slot receiver.
“You try to get all the plays you can,” he said, “because you don’t know what the situation is going to be like on Saturday. You have to be prepared for everything.”
The roles change slightly. As an outside receiver, Egbuka is more likely to be covered by a cornerback, while he might be up against a safety in the slot.
The latter matchup might allow Egbuka, who also returns kickoffs and punts, to take advantage of his speed.
“There's nothing I think I can't do on the field,” Egbuka said, “and just playing with that confidence in the slot, and knowing that you're not going against a guy who traditionally guards man-to-man and stuff like that, is big.”
Smith-Njigba wasn’t the only one of the Buckeyes receivers who was hurt last week as Kamryn Babb and Julian Fleming were also sidelined.
“Football's football,” Egbuka said. “I played it my whole life. So has everyone else on the on the roster. We're going to go out there Saturday, and every Saturday to come, and we're just going to play the game that we love. It doesn't matter if you're the main target on the offense, you're there to do your job. And if you do your job well, then it's going to be a good day.”
If the injury situations continue to leave Egbuka with a bigger role, his chemistry with Stroud should grow.
Stroud praised him and fellow receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. for their play against Notre Dame. Harrison caught five passes for 56 yards.
“That first game put a little taste in people’s mouths of what we can do,” Stroud said, “but I feel we’ll do even more with the work we put in. Emeka and Marvin are two great young players who work hard. Great routes, great body discipline, and different things like that.”