Smith-Schuster Making a Splash
Steelers rookie still a kid at heart
PITTSBURGH — The NFL’s youngest player rides his bike to work, runs to the local ice cream place in SpongeBob Squarepants slippers and will happily take you on in Madden or Call of Duty if you happen to find him online during a given night.
Just don’t let JuJu Smith-Schuster’s age — he turns 21 in November — or his seemingly limitless enthusiasm for life confuse you.
He knows the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t draft him to turn his Instagram feed into some sort of millennial wish-fulfillment playground. They hired him to catch the football and block, jobs the rookie wide receiver is tackling with ferocious glee.
His skills came to vivid life during two very different, but no less impactful snaps in last Sunday’s victory over Minnesota.
With the ball at the Vikings 4 in the second quarter, Smith-Schuster came in motion, took a shovel pass from Ben Roethlisberger and careened into the end zone, bouncing off Vikings safety Harrison Smith just after crossing the goal line to give the Steelers a two-touchdown lead.
It was Smith-Schuster’s other meeting with Smith, however, that resonated in the locker room in a way his first NFL catch never could.
Pittsburgh was backed up to its 15 while protecting an eight-point advantage early in the third quarter when Smith-Schuster lined up tight to the right side of the Steelers offensive line.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger handed off to Le’Veon Bell, and Smith raced in to fill the hole. He never made it. Smith-Schuster came down and delivered a crunching block with his right shoulder, leveling the six-year veteran and helping spring Bell for a modest gain. It was the starting point for a 10-play drive that helped Pittsburgh go back in front by two scores.
“I told him, ‘Bring your mouthpiece and make a hit,’ and he made that hit,” Steelers receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said of Smith. “I was hyped on the sideline.”
Heyward-Bey wasn’t the only one. When the play came up in film Monday, the room — particularly the offensive line — roared at the way the laid-back kid from Southern California so casually laid the hit. Even Bell couldn’t help but admire it as he ran by.
“He kind of knocked him into the hole I was going into so I kind of had to adjust where I was going,” Bell said. “You need a player like that.”
One who is trying to make himself at home 2,500 miles away from home.
Transportation was never a problem as a kid growing up in Long Beach, Calif., or at USC, which offers free Ubers to students, so Smith-Schuster never bothered getting his driver’s license.
It’s a rite of passage he’s finally tackling in Pittsburgh thanks in part to perhaps the world’s tallest driving instructor, 6-foot-9 right tackle Alejandro Villanueva.
“His truck is kind of wild,” Smith-Schuster said. “If I’m able to drive that, then I can drive anything.”
He might want to get his car situation settled sooner rather than later. Smith-Schuster bikes from his apartment to the team’s practice facility most days and has become a popular target among the small handful of autograph seekers who set up camp just outside the gates.
Smith-Schuster is fine with the attention, at least up to a point. Yes, he’s here to have a good time, one of the reasons Heyward-Bey still refers to him as a “teenager.”
Smith-Schuster’s football, however, he takes seriously. When practice broke Thursday, he went to an adjacent field and caught balls from rookie quarterback Josh Dobbs.
Then it was a quick duck into the locker room, where he squinted in the TV lights and talked politely before sprinting off to a meeting.
“You wouldn’t realize his age just being around him every day,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “He comes across as a much more mature guy than what you see in other 20-year-olds that I got at home.”
The Steelers have a habit of bringing in young players and nurturing them. Bell turned 21 just a couple of months before the Steelers selected him in the 2013 draft. He sees a lot of himself in Smith-Schuster, from the fondness for video games to the precocious physicality he brings to work every day.
“He’s just really goofy, just happy all the time,” Bell said. “There’s nothing wrong with being like that. You can tell he’s just having fun.”
Asked if he felt he needed to do something extra to prove himself because of his age, Smith-Schuster shrugged his shoulders. Considering the company he keeps — All-Pro Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant among them — he figures he doesn’t have a choice.
“I think everybody has to show somebody something and what they’re capable of,” he said. “When you have so many receivers that can do so many different things. …. I was huge on blocking in college. I just brought it here and I showcased what I had.”
What he has, beyond his relentless energy, is potential.
“I think most receivers are built to score touchdowns and make big plays,” Heyward-Bey said. “But every once in a while you’ve got a guy who’s down to do it all and JuJu’s the perfect person. He’s young. He doesn’t know any better. He just wants to play football.”
RT Marcus Gilbert (illness, hamstring) and LB T.J. Watt (groin) did not practice Thursday. … TE Jesse James (ankle) was limited. … DE Stephon Tuitt (left biceps) and S J.J. Wilcox (concussion) were full participants.