JuJu Smith-Schuster might be one of the youngest players on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 91-man roster, but he is already a proven veteran with two years’ worth of experience and a Pro Bowl under his belt. He is also, with the exception of Eli Rogers, the longest-tenured wide receiver on the team now with Antonio Brown and Darrius Heyward-Bey gone.
And with that comes a new leadership role, one that he admits has been a change for him, something that he talked about yesterday after practice with Michael Irvin for the NFL Network. While he was in the middle of catching passes from the JUGs machine.
“Everyone comes to me to be the vocal leader, and that’s something I stepped up to”, he told Irvin. “I didn’t really talk a lot last year. This year, I had the opportunity to be a role model for my teammates and the players in my locker room, and I’m just super excited”.
It’s normal for a young player to be deferential to the veterans, especially in a room with a perennial All-Pro player in it, as he found himself with Brown. He was the apprentice, the protégé, the one who was doing the learning. Now his apprenticeship is up. He’s the young master, and it’s time for him to start relaying what wisdom he has digested in his young career.
Irvin talked about seeing Smith-Schuster after practice working with some of the other young players while they were on the JUGs machine, in their ear. He asked the wire receiver what he was telling them.
“‘Man, we’re gonna have bad days’”, he said. “’Nobody’s gonna have a perfect day throughout the week. There’s gonna be days where we struggle, and we just have to fight through it’. I talk to the young dudes about that, like, ‘stay positive, keep your head in it. When the coach gets on you that means he cares about you so much’”.
The Steelers have a lot of young wide receivers who need to step up this year, including second-year James Washington, who was drafted in the second round in 2018, and rookie third-round draft pick Diontae Johnson.
Even though both of them are actually older than Smith-Schuster, he is obviously the significantly more accomplished, so he has that ability to speak to them as the authority, a veteran of two seasons who has been acknowledged for his production.
Having that cache of being able to put the weight of experience behind your words will be of great service to Smith-Schuster to close the credibility gap he might experience as a young player with a gregarious personality.
He is quickly becoming one of the key faces of the franchise, without a doubt, and while he deals with that, he simultaneously must also ascend to the next, elite level in his own performance. There is a lot on his plate this year, but he appears to be hungry.