The 2019 season was miserable in a number of ways for JuJu Smith-Schuster, a guy who readily admits that he’s always trying to have fun and enjoy life. It started tragically with the passing of Darryl Drake, his position coach, in training camp. Then he injured his toe in the season opener, lost his quarterback a week later, and wasn’t on the same page with Mason Rudolph, whom he’d never played with before.
On top of that, he would later have a concussion and a knee injury, suffered on the same play, that would cost him four games in the second half of the season, and he was clearly not the same in the final two games in which he played.
All the while, he was getting heavily criticized by a certain segment of the fan base, questioning his dedication to the team as he continued to promote his brand on social media while missing games due to injury. It’s no surprise that the would later admit things were not particularly fun.
Even a global pandemic couldn’t temper his enthusiasm to a strong start to the 2020 season, however, securing just the second multi-touchdown (receiving) game of his career. In all, he caught six passes for 67 yards on only six targets from Ben Roethlisberger, who finished the game 21-of-32 passing for 229 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.
“Man, I’m having a lot of fun”, he said after the game when Aditi Kinkhabwala asked him about whether he was having more fun so far this year than in 2019. “Having Ben back is huge for our offense. We can do a lot more things. But at the same time, I think our defense stepped up huge tonight”.
I bet it’s even more fun when you’re playing with a great defense behind you and you’re still able to put up the numbers offensively, which was not really the case during Smith-Schuster’s first three seasons in the NFL, even if they went 13-3 during his rookie year.
And he was a part of that. He caught 58 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie, playing more than was planned because he earned the snaps. A year later, he was a Pro Bowler, catching 111 passes for 1426 yards and another seven touchdowns.
Thanks to a number of reasons—including some of his own struggles outside of injury—Smith-Schuster only caught 42 passes in 2019 for 552 yards and three touchdowns over 12 games. Those numbers look better when you pro-rate them for the time lost to injury, but they’re not the numbers he’s supposed to be putting up.
It still remains to be seen how often Roethlisberger is going to throw this year—although 32 attempts in the opener may be a reasonable indication—but I think the 23-year-old wide receiver will take a few more trips to the end zone over big numbers in yardage. He’s already got two so far this year, and he’ll surely be aiming for double-digits.