Smith-Schuster eyes bigger role
PITTSBURGH — JuJu Smith-Schuster is an open book. Unless you ask the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver about the left knee issue that’s forced him to spend most of the offseason watching workouts instead of participating in them.
“You can talk to Mike Tomlin about that,” Smith-Schuster said Wednesday.
Smith-Schuster described the injury as something that built up over time and came to a point where he realized he couldn’t simply hope it disappeared on his own, so he got it checked out. He offered no details but stressed he will be fully recovered when the team reports to training camp at Saint Vincent College on July 25.
“For sure,” he said. “Especially when you get this five-week break. I think I’ll be ready.”
The AFC North champions need him to be. Smith-Schuster heads into his second season firmly entrenched as the No. 2 receiver behind All-Pro Antonio Brown after the Steelers dealt talented but mercurial Martavis Bryant to Oakland during the NFL draft. Bryant did little to hide his frustration when Smith-Schuster bypassed him on the depth chart.
It’s a relationship that plays in stark contrast — at least in mid-June — to the way Smith-Schuster has welcomed second-round pick James Washington into the fold.
“We kind of have the same body type, he’s playing inside and out (like me),” Smith-Schuster said. “Super excited to see what he can do.”
It’s a label Smith-Schuster might as well place on himself after becoming a revelation in more ways than one in 2017. He caught 58 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns, earned respect in the locker room for his fearless blocking and a social media sensation for his intricate and highly shareable touchdown celebrations. Hide and Seek anyone?
Yet it’s the memory of the final touchdown he scored last season that will stick with him. He hauled in a 4-yard toss from Ben Roethlisberger with 1 second left in a 45-42 playoff loss to Jacksonville. All it did was pretty up the final score. By then, the game had already been decided and a season filled with typically high aspirations was over.
“I was ‘Whatever’ about it,” Smith-Schuster said. “Like I wanted to celebrate but what is there to celebrate. We took the ‘L.'”
Smith-Schuster returned to his native Southern California for a few weeks in the offseason, where the 21-year-old discovered his profile had risen considerably since the time he left. Part of that is by design. Smith-Schuster’s social media feeds are a glimpse into a young athlete attempting to live their best life at all times.
He’s playing Fortnite. He’s at Coachella . He’s hanging with his French bulldog Boujee . He’s chilling with his family. He spent time at EA Sports last weekend getting a glimpse at the latest edition of the “Madden” football franchise, a version that includes plenty of digital post-touchdown antics by the guy in black-and-gold wearing No. 19. Smith-Schuster figures it’s a sign of things to come.
“Got to be No. 1 in celebrations,” he said. “But that’s going to come after we take care of business though.”
Therein lies the challenge for Smith-Schuster. He is no longer an unknown quantity. And he’s passed the title as “NFL’s Youngest Player” to Buffalo Bills rookie linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. More will be expected of him on the field, and he’s well aware there are greater demands of his time off it. Finding balance will be a vital part of his progress.
Brown appeared to reach a breaking point of sorts on Tuesday when he vaguely talked about outside “pressure” during a rambling meeting with reporters. There’s none of that on Smith-Schuster, at least not yet. It may come at some point.
Darrius Heyward-Bey, the elder statesman in Pittsburgh’s wide receiver room, isn’t concerned about Smith-Schuster’s maturation process — provided he attacks things with the right perspective.
“(I) just let him know that A: you wouldn’t have all that stuff if it wasn’t for football,'” Heyward-Bey said. “Yes, you’ve got to have the personality but if you’re not the guy scoring touchdowns, making big plays, nobody cares about you so to speak. So if he keeps football first and understands you’ve got to work harder and always improve on your game each and every year, I think he’ll be fine.”
Smith-Schuster won’t lack for opportunities considering the extra attention Brown and All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell are sure to attract every week. The way he figures it, that’s why he’s playing in the first place.
“I mean, I want it,” Smith-Schuster said. “I love it. This is why I’m here. This is why I love the game so whatever they put on my shoulders, I’m going to carry and do what I can do for this year.”