This time two years ago during his rookie season, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was a fresh-faced kid just trying to step up to the challenges put forth in front of him. not much has changed in those two years, aside from the fact that he’s 22 now, instead of 20, and the tasks he has been challenged with have become greater.
At that time, Smith-Schuster was just trying to get on the field. He started the opener playing behind Eli Rogers in the slot. He wasn’t even targeted in that first game. But he finished his rookied year with 58 receptions for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. He went 111 for 1426 and another seven scores last year.
Now the challenge on his plate is to maintain that productivity while being the number one guy in Antonio Brown’s absence. And that includes being the number one both on and off the field. But no matter what, it’s not going to alter who he is.
“I’m still myself. I would never change that”, he told reporters after practice yesterday about stepping into a new leadership role. “Obviously I’ll become more vocal in our receiver room”.
“Usually you go off of age, which is totally fine, because I think everybody in my room’s a leader”, he went on. “Everyone’s vocal, everyone can talk and speak up. But when you have the amount of years playing on this team, the most experience, I fall in that category. I consider myself being more vocal and just being more of a leader in our room”.
Only Rogers has been with the team longer than has Smith-Schuster. James Washington is in his second season. Diontae Johnson is a rookie. Donte Moncrief is a sixth-year veteran, but this is his first in Pittsburgh. Ryan Switzer was only acquired a little under a year ago and is in his third season. Nobody else has ever been on their 53-man roster before, though Johnny Holton has three years of NFL experience in Oakland.
But Moncrief has been the most helpful to him, he said, as another veteran presence. “It’s great to have that guy because it feels like, there’s somebody older, just with that amount of years. It makes my job a lot easier”, he said.
While he didn’t mention Rogers, he has also helped with those veteran duties. Johnson has previously talked about how he is able to go up to the fifth-year wide receiver with questions he might have about the offense or about the game.
But like T.J. Watt, Smith-Schuster is looking to step up more both on and off the field in his third season. He knows he’s the lead dog in the group, and he has to rise to that occasion. It doesn’t matter that he’s only 22, younger than every other receiver on the roster, including the rookie Johnson.