If Pittsburgh Steelers rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is intent on making headway up the depth chart to assure himself a good dose of playing time once the regular season starts, then he is currently experiencing a golden opportunity with a number of notable players not participating at the moment for one reason or another.
While he himself missed a few practices with an ankle injury a, the beginning of training camp, neither Martavis Bryant nor Sammie Coates have yet seen the field. Bryant is awaiting word on being fully reinstated from his suspension that kept him out all of last year. Coates is on the PUP list recovering from knee surgery.
Aside from that pair, Justin Hunter and Demarcus Ayers have also been sidelined for a short period of time in recent days. Hunter has taken the majority of first-team reps so far in training camp due to the absences of others.
Now Smith-Schuster is being given a lot of those reps, and while not all of them have been flawless, he has made a number of plays that are getting the second-round draft pick a good bit of attention. And he is getting the opportunity to do so both on the outside and from the slot, which is fine by him.
“I like them both”, he said about whether or not he had a preference. “For me, it’s the opportunity to be on the field more than playing inside and outside, so that’s good”. When Hunter had been on the field, Smith-Schuster was splitting his reps with Eli Rogers in the slot with the first-team offense.
And that is the group that he wants to be working with. He wants to be catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger, no disrespect intended toward his fellow rookie, Joshua Dobbs, who will be starting the team’s preseason opener, in all likelihood.
“I’ve been trying to get some work with Ben”, the 20-year-old told reporters. “I’ve been catching with all of them, but Big Ben is the one I’m really trying to get my time with”. Because he is the one who is going to be throwing the passes that matter once September rolls around.
Thus far in practice, Smith-Schuster has had his rookie moments, and a drop or two, but he has also made some fantastic catches that show you why the Steelers drafted him where they did, and even showed off some of his blocking prowess—though no less an authority than Hines Ward said that he still has some work to do.
Head Coach Mike Tomlin has plenty of experience watching the development of rookie wide receivers. He has drafted a number of them since 2007. He knows that Smith-Schuster has had his ups and downs.
But “the big thing is I like his approach to the work”, he said after practice yesterday. “He comes ready to work every day, and he’s attentive. He’s got a high sense of urgency, so those are the good things”.