Tim Benz: Best in Steelers camp so far? An obvious, but important, answer
At the end of the first week of Steelers training camp, I get the same question every year.
Friends, family, acquaintances, emails, tweets.
“So, who looks good up there?”
That. And, “How they gonna be?”
I better have a prediction ready. And it better not be off. Not by one game.
So, here it is: 16-0. See you in Miami.
If not 16-0 and a Super Bowl win, probably 0-16.
Now, as far as who looks good, that one is easy.
However, I apologize. The answer is going to be really boring.
It shouldn’t be. This should be the best possible response. And it should be exciting.
The answer is JuJu Smith-Schuster. No one has been more impressive in camp than he has.
He looks bigger, faster, stronger and more flexible than in his first two seasons.
As if they weren’t excellent enough.
But it’s true. On a daily basis, Smith-Schuster makes at least one body-contorting grab, often down the sideline on deep routes in — dare I say it — ”Tony Toe Tap” fashion.
It doesn’t seem like a sexy thing to say, “Hey! JuJu looks great.”
He’s been wonderful in his first two seasons as a Steeler. The Southern Cal product totaled 2,343 yards over his first 30 regular-season games. He also snared 14 touchdowns in that time.
This offseason, though, Smith-Schuster’s job got more difficult. He’s gone from being the complement to All-Pro Antonio Brown to replacing Brown as Ben Roethlisberger’s top target.
So far at Saint Vincent College, he has done nothing to dissuade those who feel he is capable.
“I’m coming in to work,” Smith-Schuster said on Day 1 of camp. “JuJu came in to work. It’s not about me. It’s about the team.”
Annually, when training camp starts, most folks like to find a name that no one knows. A perceived “camp darling” that blossoms from obscurity to fight his way onto the roster.
Saying that a reigning Team MVP is standing out as your vote for camp darling is no fun.
However, when that Team MVP may have the most daunting task in front of him, and he appears to be up to the challenge, it’s worthy of praise.
On Day 1 of practices, Smith-Schuster adjusted to a slightly underthrown ball and dragged both feet just along the sideline for a completion while falling to the turf. It was a tricky catch, yet somehow never in doubt.
On Tuesday, he snatched a perfectly threaded ball from Big Ben between two defenders in the end zone and maintained control while getting both feet down.
A dive on a slant here. A spin around on a tough back-shoulder fade there. Smith-Schuster’s camp has been one long session of “can you top this?” against himself.
To a degree, Smith-Schuster’s ascension was anticipated. He’s a second-round pick with a good track record. But there is a difference between doing a good job in his heightened role and potentially making us all forget Brown was ever here.
I always thought Smith-Schuster was capable of the former. I’m somehow starting to believe he’s capable of the latter, too.
Given my appreciation for how good Brown is, I never saw that coming.
“The one constant was always Antonio for eight or nine years,” offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. “You could guarantee that he was the X (receiver). We never moved Antonio from that position.
“We’ve moved JuJu to some of those (X-Receiver) spots.”
I’m not someone who falls into the all-too-easy habit of gushing over any little thing that Smith-Schuster does.
Nothing annoys me more than the constant media fawning over every social media post from JuJu. I don’t care at all about his prom photos, his gender reveals, his snappy commercials, his bike or his dog.
Especially when his social media persona is a heckuva lot more friendly than his personal, local media interactions.
But I’ll freely heap praise on what I’ve seen from Smith-Schuster this summer on the field. He appears ready for an extra helping of responsibilities, then asking for seconds.
And the Steelers are best served if they keep feeding him every bite he wants.
So, yeah. Matt Feiler continues to be a rock at right tackle. Ola Adeniyi is opening eyes rushing the passer. Kam Kelly keeps batting balls away at safety. Trey Edmunds is going to be a hard cut at running back.
But if you are asking me who is the most pleasant surprise of training camp so far, it’s Smith-Schuster.
Surprising, only because I thought the standard set by Brown was out of reach.
Now I’m wondering whether Smith-Schuster may be closer than I ever had a right to expect.