How Jaxon Smolik’s unique journey led him to Penn State
Dowling Catholic and quarterback Jaxon Smolik’s 2021 season began like any other campaign.
The Maroons, after going 7-2 and losing in the semifinals a year prior, opened up their season with heightened expectations on Aug. 27, 2021, against Southeast Polk.
Smolik was named the starting quarterback following a campaign when he rotated with then-senior Jake Steingrebar.
In Smolik’s sophomore season, he threw for 794 yards with six touchdowns and four interceptions.
On Dowling Catholic’s first offensive possession of the young season, Smolik dropped back to pass and saw none of his receivers were open, so he took off up the middle of the field and was hit by a linebacker.
When he fell to the ground, he heard a crack in his collarbone but kept playing through the pain, and his teammates convinced him to stay on the gridiron.
However, the injury only got worse: a couple of plays later, the junior gun-slinger retreated in the pocket and was hit from behind, resulting in his collarbone splitting into two pieces.
Southeast Polk came away with a 13-7 victory, but for the Maroons, losing Smolik for potentially the season was an even bigger loss.
“It was challenging mentally and physically,” Smolik said. “It was a hard time for me because your junior season is your biggest season, and that's when my recruitment was going to start picking up, but it was sad when I broke my collarbone.”
During his recovery, Smolik sat down with his family to discuss his future, and his parents were concerned about their son returning to football.
Smolik spent an abundance of time contemplating his future, but he ultimately decided to return to the sport he loves.
Dowling Catholic’s signal caller missed roughly two months but returned to action Oct. 15, leading his team to three victories and the second round of Iowa’s 5A playoffs.
Despite not playing at full strength, Smolik completed 65.5 percent of his passes for 959 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions.
Although he appeared in five games, the West Des Moines, Iowa, native flashed his potential and got on the radar for collegiate programs.
“It was a blessing for me because the little bit of film got me to where I am right now,” Smolik said. “I'm glad I got to get back, and it was a hard decision to come back because I was only 60 percent healed, but I'm glad I got to come back.”
With his junior campaign in the books, Smolik now had to rely on his performance in camps to help improve his rankings.
In the middle of February, Smolik received his first two offers from Northern Iowa and Indiana State, but his stock didn’t rise until June.
He performed well at various camps, and on Jun. 22, his hard work turned into recognition with Kent State, Tulane, Western Illinois, Southeast Missouri State and Valparaiso, offering him scholarships.
After receiving five offers in one day, it took Smolik the same amount of time to decide where he wanted to play at the next level.
He chose Tulane, the first FBS school to offer him a scholarship, and when he visited prior to his commitment, he formed great relationships with the coaches.
“When I went down there, I loved the campus and everything about it, and it was my first FBS offer,” Smolik said. “I knew the quarterback coach pretty well, and he was an awesome guy as well as the other coaches.
Following a whirlwind of a week, it only got crazier as Tennessee quarterback commit Nico Iamaleava dropped out of the Elite 11 quarterback camp.
Iamaleava’s choice of dropping out of the competition in favor of a volleyball tournament came as a bit of a surprise, and taking his place was none other than the newest pledge of the Green Wave.
Smolik noted he was starstruck when he received the invitation from Bryce Young, and it left him speechless.
After being dealt a tough break with his collarbone injury, he viewed the Elite 11 as another chance to make a name for himself.
“That was a special moment for me, and it felt like God was helping me with my recruiting process,” Smolik said. “It was like God saying, ‘Okay, this is another shot for you.’
“It was a blessing in disguise.”
Although he was virtually unknown entering the event, Smolik made the most of his opportunity, playing pressure-free football and finishing among the top players.
With his performance, many scouts and programs took a deeper dive into him, and his stock rose significantly, making him one of the most intriguing players in the 2023 class.
Another field general at the Elite 11 was then-Penn State commit Marcus Stokes, who also performed well.
However, shortly after the competition, Stokes flipped from Penn State to a program from his home state, the Florida Gators, leaving the Nittany Lions with a gaping hole at quarterback.
Two weeks after the Elite 11, the blue and white displayed interest in Smolik, but it wasn’t the only team that did.
In early July, the California Golden Bears offered him a scholarship, with Wisconsin, Notre Dame and LSU all showing interest in the Iowa native.
In the span of two weeks, Smolik received his first FBS offer, committed to Tulane, performed well at the Elite 11 and was earning interest from elite programs.
Many recruits have over a year to decide what they're doing, but for the rising senior, he had just a few weeks, and the process of constantly talking to coaches was overwhelming.
In late July, Smolik made the trek from Iowa to Happy Valley to participate in Penn State’s Elite Showcase V, and several sets of eyes were on him.
His play during the camp earned him a scholarship offer from the Nittany Lions, and now a tough decision plagued him.
He had to decide between staying with the first FBS program to offer him in Tulane or leave for a bigger school.
On Aug. 11, Smolik decommitted from Tulane and opened up his recruitment again. He said it was a very difficult choice, but it was best for his future.
“It was tough because I love everybody at Tulane,” Smolik said. “They were super nice and believed in me from the start. It was a tough decision to make.”
However, his recruitment was short-lived, as the next day, Smolik announced he was heading to Penn State.
Attending the camp and getting to visit the campus helped the newest Nittany Lion make his decision.
“That place was awesome,” Smolik said. “Those facilities were top-notch, and I'm glad I got to go out there because that's what solidified my decision on committing, and seeing all those guys out there and meeting the coaches was awesome.”
Smolik formed a great connection with several coaches, including James Franklin and offensive analyst Danny O’Brien.
During the camp, he worked closely with offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, and the two bonded over something other than football.
“We were on our way to Beaver Stadium at the end of the day, and we saw a sign it was a concert of The Killers,” Smolik said. “We were talking about The Killers, and I like the song Mr. Brightside, and he asked, “What kind of songs do you listen to?” We got in-depth, and that’s when I said I like Nirvana, The Offspring and a lot of other bands, and he said that was the type of music he likes.”
The blue and white have compiled one of the country’s top recruiting classes. As it stands currently, the class is No. 12, and Smolik is the 19th player to join it.
He stands 6-foot-2, 200 pounds but doesn’t have Drew Allar-level arm strength yet. He makes up for it with great accuracy, an understanding of the finer points of being a quarterback and a willingness to compete.
Dowling Catholic coach Tom Wilson is impressed with the play of his quarterback and his dedication to the game he loves.
“He can make any throw that you need to make, and he’s more mobile and a better athlete than what people give him credit for,” Wilson said in an interview with 247 Sports. “I think Jaxon has dedicated himself to be the best he can be. Everything he’s been through shows what it all means to him.”
The Iowa native models his game after his favorite quarterback of all time, Penn State’s all-time passing leaderTrace McSorley, who he grew up watching.
McSorley led the Nittany Lions to new heights during his time in Happy Valley, and Smolik has the same aspirations.
“I'm excited about my class, and the class above and below has in store for the next couple of years,” Smolik said. “There's going to be big things coming from Penn State soon.”
Before he can don the blue and white, the Dowling Catholic product has to finish his senior season, take his official visit and potentially enroll in the program early.
Smolik wants to build off a strong end to his junior season and become one of the best quarterbacks in Penn State history.
“My main goal at Penn State is to play great football and leave a legacy of being a great quarterback,” Smolik said. “I want to be a great person and leader.”
Alex Rocco is a rising junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email email@example.com.
About the Contributors
Third-Year / Broadcast Journalism