Through his first three seasons in the NFL, JuJu Smith-Schuster has been targeted by four different quarterbacks in meaningful games. He has already worked with three different position coaches, and two different offensive coordinators. That’s a lot of instability for a 23-year-old.
As he enters the final year of his rookie contract, the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver will be working with his fourth different position coach, with the team announcing the hiring of Ike Hilliard to coach the wide receivers, coming over from Washington after several years there. A former first-round pick, he had some success with the New York Giants himself as a wide receiver.
Though many are gravitating toward a desire to have some negativity toward Smith-Schuster right now coming off of a very down season by the high standards he set in his first two seasons (especially since, heaven forbid, he continued to exist and let it be known on social media while he was injured), I think it’s worth considering how much tumult he has had to deal with.
And that really starts right at the most local level at position coach. Though it’s arguably the least well-understood coaching role, since it’s the most difficult by which to really gauge how much of an impact they have, it’s also obvious that players and their position coaches can forge a close bond.
Smith-Schuster had a strong relationship with Richard Mann during his rookie season, but Mann had already been retired before until Mike Tomlin coaxed him out. He had already contemplated retiring again before Smith-Schuster was drafted, and then did so following his rookie season.
But the Steelers replaced Mann with Darryl Drake, with whom Smith-Schuster would form a very close relationship, and under whom he would have a breakout season in 2018 with 111 receptions for 1426 yards and seven touchdowns, plus a trip to the Pro Bowl.
Needless to say, he took Drake’s sudden passing hard, probably the hardest of anybody in the entire organization. I believe he even said it was basically the first person close to him he’s lost in his life—a reminder that he was just 22 years old at the time).
But the show must go on, and Pittsburgh filled in the vacancy with Ray Sherman, another former wide receivers coach who was essentially enjoying retirement, or semi-retirement. Sherman had been observing training camp at Tomlin’s invitation, and he agreed to serve as interim wide receivers coach last season to help the team get through the year under the trying circumstances.
That was always a temporary solution. But Mann and Drake were both toward the end of their careers when they were brought in as well. Perhaps Hilliard, 43 years old, is the one with whom Smith-Schuster, and the rest of the wide receiver room, and finally build a long-term and fruitful relationship.