PITTSBURGH — With constant head bobs, ear-to-ear smiles and a promise to make a Madden cover — as a Hall of Famer, though “I’m just playing; chill out” — JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s high-wattage personality came out in his first offseason interview from the Steelers’ locker room.
But Smith-Schuster knows his epic “Fortnite” sessions with Drake and pictures with LeBron James are only possible because of his historic rookie year in which, at 21, he became the NFL’s youngest player to top 1,000 all-purpose yards.
In a crucial second season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Smith-Schuster wants that order to stay intact: production first, then the rest.
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“It’s crazy because after my rookie year, everything off the field that happened is because of everything on the field would happen,” Smith-Schuster said. “You take care of business on the field; everything will take care of itself off the field. Marketing, we’re doing appearances, just doing stuff around the community and charity — it’s awesome we can do all that.”
Smith-Schuster is frustrated because a knee injury is keeping him from working with teammates on the practice field. He expects to be a full go for training camp but is limited to individual work this week.
That hasn’t stopped him from mentally preparing for an expanded role in the Pittsburgh offense. Smith-Schuster expects more chances to play inside and out as the clear-cut No. 2 receiver following the trade of Martavis Bryant to the Oakland Raiders.
Smith-Schuster will be tasked with winning up the middle and stretching the field vertically. He’s eager for the challenge, vowing to carry “whatever they put on my shoulders.”
“Super excited about this year,” Smith-Schuster said. “To be on the side with [Antonio Brown] and all those other guys, it’s going to be fun.”
Turns out Smith-Schuster is giving second-round rookie receiver James Washington the same advice that helped him produce 917 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 2017: Learn both receiver spots, block linebackers and safeties, win “in the trenches” and catch balls over the top.
Smith-Schuster showed he could do all those things, and the next step is consistently beating elite man coverage (see: playoff game against Jacksonville, which held Smith-Schuster to 5 yards on three catches).
He hopes he gets those chances in the slot, where his “very aggressive” style of play shows up most often.
“I like playing inside. I just love the physicalness of being in the box with the bigger guys,” Smith-Schuster said. “That’s just something that’s part of my game.”
When practice is over is when Smith-Schuster gets less aggressive, thanks to newfound fame. The receiver said he’s made a habit of going to the grocery store late at night to avoid mobs of fans.
“Stay in the room, lock the door, play video games,” Smith-Schuster said.
The Steelers might need video-game numbers.
And if Smith-Schuster has his way, LeBron James will watch the production live. Smith-Schuster said he invited James to a Steelers game.