Few teams have put in the sort of resources at the wide receiver position over the past several years that the Pittsburgh Steelers have. In each of the past four draft classes, they have taken a wide receiver on day two, between the middle of the second round and the top of the third. Every one of their top four wide receivers is 24 years old or younger, with rookie Chase Claypool having just turned 22 a month ago.
What is the ideal position coach to handle that sort of group? Is there one? the Steelers have tried different approaches in the past. With the ‘Young Money Crew’, helmed by Mike Wallace, they had a relatively young Scottie Montgomery. Later, they adopted the opposite approach, bringing Richard Mann out of retirement.
Ike Hilliard, I suppose, falls somewhere in the middle. He is 44, and a former player with success in the NFL. He is also heading into his 10th season as a coach at the NFL level. playing from 1997 to 2008, he immediately began coaching in the UFL in 2009, and by 2011 was an assistant for the Miami Dolphins.
How will he relate to this group of young 20-somethings? That was the question that was posed to him yesterday during his first media availability session since being hired by the Steelers prior to the start of the pandemic.
“Yes, on paper, it’s a considerably young group, but I’ve been around young groups before. I’ve coached young players before”, he said to reporters. “I’ve been blessed that way. This group is a little younger than the group I had in Buffalo. Stevie Johnson, and then we drafted Robert Woods, and we drafted Marquise Goodwin. Chris Hogan, who had been cut three times. Guys like that. So I’m no stranger to dealing with younger players and trying to help them with their journey”.
Hilliard served one season in Buffalo in 2013. They had awful quarterback play on a run-oriented team, truth be told, but there were some signs of life with the young players he mentioned, who developed over time.
More recently, he worked with a rather young group in Washington, led by rookie wide receiver Terry McLaurin, who caught 58 passes for 919 yards and seven touchdowns last season, accounting for a lot of the team’s receiving production from the likes of Case Keenum, Colt McCoy, and a rookie Dwayne Haskins.
Now, he comes into Pittsburgh ready to work with a group of young and talented players who have a franchise quarterback to throw to them. Antonio Brown may be gone, but there is JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has been a Pro Bowler in the past. James Washington and Diontae Johnson showed potential without Roethlisberger last season. And then there is the 22-year-old Claypool.
For Hilliard, this isn’t new territory, nor is it a burden. Perhaps it comes with its challenges, but he is ready to welcome the task of getting the most out of this group of young professionals, calling upon his own experience as a young wide receiver in the late 90s with the New York Giants.