Ben Roethlisberger has never been shy when it comes to complimenting JuJu Smith-Schuster. Big Ben, Pittsburgh's future Hall of Fame quarterback, routinely complimented his receiver when Smith-Schuster was in the midst of his breakout rookie season. He continued to do last season -- Smith-Schuster led the Steelers in catches and receiving yards on his way to earning the team's MVP award.
This week, as Pittsburgh wrapped up training camp from Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Roethlisberger again praised Smith-Schuster, who is still just 22-years-old as he enters his third NFL season and first year as the Steelers' No. 1 receiver.
"I think what we've seen from JuJu [during training camp] is what we all anticipated," Roethlisberger said. "He's something special."
While he spent some time this back home in California, Smith-Schuster spent the majority of his offseason at Pittsburgh's training facility, taking part in the majority of the team's voluntary workouts. Like many of the Steelers' returning offensive veterans, Smith-Schuster is driven to show that Pittsburgh's offense can still be an elite unit despite the offseason departures of running back Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.
"This year is going to be fun," Smith-Schuster said recently on Adam Schefter's podcast. "Having Ben coming back and the new guys on our team, we're going make a lot of noise. We're very quiet [and] under the radar right now, which we like, but when it's time to play, you're going to get the best out of me, each and every game, day in and day out."
Roethlisberger was also asked about the rest of the Steelers' receiving corps, a group that includes free-agent acquisition Donte Moncrief and rookie Diontae Johnson. Moncrief, after missing the majority of camp with a finger injury, had an impressive practice on Wednesday while strengthening his case to be Pittsburgh's No. 2 receiver at the start of the regular season. His biggest competition will be second-year receiver James Washington, who caught four passes for 84 yards and a score during Pittsburgh's first preseason game against the Buccaneers.
"James Washington, I thought, had a great camp," Roethlisberger said. "Creif, we didn't get to see a lot of because of the finger, but he's starting to come back. Just wanting to kind of continue to get on the same page."
Like Moncrief, Johnson has also missed significant time during camp, something that Roethlisberger said comes with the territory with being a young player trying to make the transition from college to the pros.
"You'd like to see him on the field because then you can kinda see what he can and can't do," Roethlisberger said of Johnson, who suffered a lower-body injury during the early portions of camp."We always say when young guys come in it's hard because they just played a whole college season, they've trained for the combine, they've trained for the draft and not they're right out here. That's why guys hit the rookie wall. As we start the break here, I think guys usually start getting healthier, and I hope we can get him on the field more to see what he can do. Because he's got some talent, he really does."
While he's trying to help his young wideouts grow as players, Big Ben is also trying to help them cope with the death of receivers coach Darryl Drake, who passed away in his sleep last Sunday after experiencing chest pains the previous night.
"Just try to be there. Listen," Roethlisberger said when asked how he's tried to help his receivers deal with Drake's passing. "I think sometimes that's the best thing you can do for grief and listen. I think so many times we get caught trying to talk and telling people to be OK. But grief isn't about being OK, it's about grieving and talking and communicating. So just trying to be a good communicator and listen."
Roethlisberger also developed a strong relationship with Drake, a longtime NFL assistant coach who joined Pittsburgh's coaching staff in 2018.
"I only knew him for a year and a half, but I think in that year and a half, he meant more to me than some people that I've known for my whole life," Roethlisberger said. "I know he was a great football coach, but he was an even better man, better husband, better father and a better man of God than he was a football coach. What he brought to this team and to me and to our relationship together was truly something that can never be replicated. He will be very dearly missed, but we know that he's with us and that he's in a better place."
Roethlisberger noted one of Drake's favorite sayings will continue to serve as a rallying cry for the Steelers throughout the 2019 season.
"The big one he was using, especially this year, was 'Shut out the noise,'" Roethlisberger said. "Everything that's not important, that's not right here, shut it out and focus on what's important and that's this group."