As noted by Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently, it’s a somewhat eye-opening fact to recognize that JuJu Smith-Schuster, the 24-year-old entering his fifth season, is among the most veteran players on the team.
Short of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, defensive linemen Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, and Chris Boswell, there is nobody else on the roster who has been continuously employed by the team for longer. There are a couple who have had gaps (Jordan Berry and B.J. Finney) and others who have been around for just as long (T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Joe Haden, Tyson Alualu), but only those four mentioned have been here longer, with no breaks.
That’s what happens when you lose Bud Dupree, Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva, Matt Feiler, David DeCastro, and Vince Williams all in the same offseason, of course. But it does beg the question—how does this change his role and responsibility? He’s still the second-youngest wide receiver on the roster (who is projected to make the team). Where does he fit in as a leader?
“I lead by example, with action. I don’t say a whole lot. If I do, it’s rare”, he admitted to reporters while speaking to the media following practice on Friday. “I’ll let that to Ben [Roethlisberger] and some of the other guys to speak for the team”.
Chase Claypool, the only veteran wide receiver who is younger than him, and who has talked about being under Smith-Schuster’s wing as a rookie, said that he was “definitely” a help to him during his rookie season a year ago.
“JuJu looks great every year. He’s getting better every year”, he added of the fifth-year veteran receiver. “He’s a good leader, because he’s a funny dude and relatable. I lean on him whenever I need a good laugh, or a piece of advice”.
Naturally, critics are immediately going to seize upon the fact that Claypool cited Smith-Schuster being a source of amusement as the principle means through which he views his senior as a leader. Frankly, everyone is going to make of it what you will.
I don’t know that Smith-Schuster necessarily has the personality or the mold to be a ‘traditional’ leader, but the reality is, that’s okay. Leadership isn’t bestowed upon you through longevity. Leaders arise naturally over the course of time, and if he is not one in the traditional stereotype, then that’s fine.
But he does lead by example. He has fun, but he also works hard. He makes the tough plays. He’s not afraid to put his body on the line. He fights for the first down, and doesn’t give up on plays. He’s a willing, sometimes eager blocker. Watch his tape, and you see a leader. That’s where it matters most, in some cases.