Kevin Gorman: Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster shooting to superstardom
JuJu Smith-Schuster never dreamt of catching 97-yard touchdown passes in back-to-back seasons, but NFL stardom was always part of the plan for the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver.
Smith-Schuster is achieving his goals faster than even he could have imagined. Not only has JuJu already bested his rookie totals for receptions and yards, but he leads the AFC with 77 catches and eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving goal he set before his second season.
JuJu showed his charm and charisma extends beyond being a social-media maven Thursday, as the 22-year-old talked about wanting to win a Super Bowl and building his brand globally.
“I just want to make it as big as possible, in a positive way,” Smith-Schuster said, “to influence younger kids and as many people as possible outside of the states.”
JuJu already has an endorsement from a Steelers superstar.
Ben Roethlisberger called Smith-Schuster “reliable, dependable and trustworthy” this week, saying he wished he would have thrown the ball to JuJu on four straight plays on the final drive in Denver. But the Steelers quarterback took it a step further Thursday, saying Smith-Schuster deserves league-wide recognition for his play.
“I think he’s rising fast, and I would think he’s a Pro Bowl guy,” Roethlisberger said. “He’ll get a lot of fan votes because the fans love him, but I don’t know if he’s got the name like (DeAndre) Hopkins or AB (Antonio Brown) … but he absolutely should.
“He’s making plays. He’s doing it all. He’s where he’s supposed to be. All of those things are great, but he also benefits from having that guy across the field from him, too. But he works. It’s not like it’s being given to him, just because teams are doubling AB. He’s still got to beat his guy.”
Smith-Schuster did that in prime time at Heinz Field, scoring a 75-yard touchdown on the Steelers’ first play against Carolina. He did it again with his 97-yard catch-and-run at Denver, matching the mark set last year at Detroit for longest play in franchise history.
If all of the adulation sounds like it could go to Smith-Schuster’s head, take comfort in knowing he still has the good sense to dismiss talk of supplanting Brown as the Steelers’ top receiver by saying he eats off the plate of the four-time All-Pro receiver. Not to mention Smith-Schuster also adds levity to the locker room, especially when asked about Roethlisberger calling out receivers Brown and rookie James Washington earlier this week.
“Us receivers, they call us ‘divas’ — I don’t know why, I can’t see that,” Smith-Schuster said, drawing laughter by flashing a sly smile and batting his eyelashes, “but we have to learn how to take criticism. We have to learn to be better, not only for ourselves but for the team.”
What the Steelers love is how Smith-Schuster plays football “above the neck,” a nod to his cerebral approach. Roethlisberger called Smith-Schuster “very smart,” noting he knows every route tree and can line up in the slot or on the outside, as he increasingly has in the Steelers’ past two games. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner is impressed by how Smith-Schuster “has a lot of very interesting comments between series about what he feels and sees,” a special trait for a second-year receiver.
“He’s very intelligent,” Fichtner said. “He sees things in-game. … He’s been able to take advantage of situations, quite honestly. When you’re going to rotate coverage to Antonio — and a lot of people have to do that — somebody better make those plays alongside him.”
Roethlisberger revealed Smith-Schuster’s suggestions aren’t always self-serving.
“He’ll come to me and say, ‘Hey, Ben, I think we can get them on this play,’ ” Roethlisberger said. “Usually, when guys tell you that, it’s a play where they’re going to get open. But he’ll tell me that he thinks this play will work, and it’s not necessarily designed for him.”
Smith-Schuster is earning the faith of a future Hall of Fame quarterback, one who was willing to take a blind shot from the end zone.
“We have so many great players on our team and also for him to have that trust in me, means a lot,” Smith-Schuster said. “It goes a long way. Every ball he throws at me, I’m willing to catch and do anything I can to make that play.”
With every play JuJu makes, we are watching Smith-Schuster shoot into a superstardom beyond even his wildest dreams.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.