The loss of Pittsburgh Steelers’ wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will undoubtedly have a massive impact on the field, but as the leader of a young, talented receiving room, the loss of the fifth-year player will have arguably an even bigger impact off the field.
Smith-Schuster was widely viewed as the leader of the young, deep receiving room that has potential stars scattered through the position group. Despite being one of the youngest players in the league year after year, Smith-Schuster held the title of leader in the room, largely due to his experience, but third-year receiver Diontae Johnson opened up to Steelers.com’s Missi Matthews in a one-on-one session, stating that Smith-Schuster is a true student of the game and was a real football player to his core.
That goes against the public perception that Smith-Schuster wasn’t always focused on football, which again shows that what a player portrays publicly through the media and social media isn’t the type of player and teammate they are behind the scenes, which is the only place that truly matters.
Smith-Schuster had the respect of his fellow teammates, especially in the receivers room, and his presence will certainly be missed the rest of the season as the Steelers continue to try and rebound and get back on track heading into a Week 7 bye.
“Yeah, he was a leader. Although he wasn’t the oldest or whatever, but we look at him as a leader ’cause he’d been here longer…five years in or whatnot, same team or whatever,” Johnson said to Matthews, according to Steelers.com. “But…we looked up to him ’cause he’s a football player at the end of the day, he knows the game. Smart, real tough player. It just, it was hard to see him go down like that. And we just…you can’t do nothing but just be there for him. On the field evening or even when we were in the building, we tried to just always be around him or whatnot. So that’s all we can do and just keep his spirits up.”
Without Smith-Schuster around day-to-day on the field and in the locker room, there’s a leadership void at the position that will need to be filled. Who steps up and fills that void remains to be seen. Johnson isn’t one that will replace the vocal Smith-Schuster. However, he’ll continue to try and lead by example, setting the standard for the rest of the receivers in the room, from second-year receiver Chase Claypool, to fourth-year receiver James Washington and first-year wideout Cody White, who will likely see more work in place of Smith-Schuster.
“Yeah, we are going to wait and to see,” Johnson said. “I’m not a vocal leader. I like to lead by example on the field. So we are just going to wait and see.”
If Johnson can continue to produce the way he has so far this season, Claypool picks up where he left off in Week 5, and Washington returns from injury and provides a steady presence as the third receiver, the young, talented position group will be just fine on the field. It remains to be seen how the loss of a key leader will affect the group away from the field though. Only time will tell, one way or the other.