PITTSBURGH – JuJu Smith-Schuster wasn't going to change. Not for the NFL. Not for the cameras. Not for anyone.
The 20-year-old, rookie receiver wasn't going to pretend he was something that he's not. No airs. No faux maturity. Sure, he was joining one of the league's iconic, conservative franchises, and a veteran-laden roster with future Hall of Famers and Super Bowl expectations and a well-established coach, but Smith-Schuster was perfectly content to embrace his inner child. Actually, more to the point, his outer child.
When you ask Steelers front office execs and staffers about Ju Ju, the first thing you invariably hear is how young he is. But he never shied from it, riding a bike to practice when he didn't have his driver's license yet, and revealing himself on social media and reveling in his love of video games, and it served him well. He went from someone fighting for playing time in a stacked Steelers receiving room and figuring to do most work on special teams and in the run game to one of the NFL's true breakout stars in 2017 – on field and off – setting franchise rookie records for receiving, and surpassing names like Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Hines Ward and Antonio Brown in the process.
Pretty heady stuff for the league's biggest little kid, and what Smith-Schuster expects will be a springboard for even better things in 2018.
"When I got drafted, one of the main reasons why I dropped was because of my age," the receiver, selected 62nd overall in 2017, told me during a sit-down at minicamp this spring. "'Oh, he's not mature. He's not ready.' But to his day I always stay true to myself and be myself with the guys here, and I'm always having fun with everything I do, especially because I love playing football."
Desperately wish you had a 30-minutes-or-so, daily NFL podcast in your podcast app every morning by 6 a.m.? Put some Pick Six Podcast in your life and join Will Brinson as he breaks down the latest news and notes from around the league, as well as the win totals on a team-by-team schedule. It's a daily dose of football to get you right for that commute or gym trip. Subscribe: via iTunes | via Stitcher | via TuneIn | via Google Play
Smith-Schuster, who finished last season on the All Rookie Team with 58 catches for 917 yards and seven receiving touchdowns, was adamant that he was always going stay true to himself. He wouldn't try to act older than he was. He wouldn't speak differently and try to act differently in the Pittsburgh locker room than he had while surrounded by college kids at USC.
"Nah man, I embraced all of that," he said. "Riding a bike everyday and playing video games on my off time and just being myself and having fun with the guys and joking around with the vets. And nothing is going to change me."
A few elders tried to steer him in certain directions. Maybe advised against advertising he couldn't drive yet. Maybe told him not to revel in the fact he was one of the youngest guys in the league and not even legal drinking age until midway through the season. He, of course, wasn't having that.
"There have been a few people who have said do this or do that," Smith-Schuster said. "And I've turned the other cheek, and I don't really pay attention to them, just because I got here because of myself and what I've done, and I'm gonna ride with that."
That includes living his life online to a certain degree, on social media and You Tube (his channel has over 500,000 followers) and shooting his shot when it came to asking Kendall Jenner out on a date ("That didn't work out," Smith-Schuster said. "I saw Blake (Griffin) like a week later. That was kind of weird.") Smith-Schuster is very LA, and doesn't try to hide it, whether dressing as a video-game character at the Coachella music festival near his hometown of Long Beach, rocking a fanny pack around Hollywood or dabbling with his inner fashion God.
Asked about his all-time favorite outfit, Smith-Schuster paused for a minute and then replied: "I wore this robe with a turtle neck and basketball shorts and some Champs sock and Adidas shoes." Quite a sight, particularly for Pittsburgh, but, again, this dude has gotta do him. He isn't shy about telling veterans that man cannot live on football alone ("They need to experience more and be free,") or chide them about that fact that Smith-Schuster's dog has a stronger Twitter following than most of his teammates.
And the Steelers didn't ask him to change much, either. There was already what one could call a unique assemblage of personalities here – Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, James Harrison, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant were just a few of the characters on the 2017 roster, led by a coach in Mike Tomlin who tends to let his men be themselves as long as they show up on Sundays. It was into that portal that Smith-Schuster launched his NFL career and -- with Brown at the top of his game and Bell catching as many balls as any running back in the league and Bryant back from a year suspension and fighting for his career and the team trading for tight end Vance McDonald just before the season -- it seemed as if the rookie might be something of a spare part.
Instead he ended up being a vital cog piece in the fabric of the offense and the interpersonal tapestry of the locker room.
"Mike Tomlin, man, is one of the realest coaches out there," Smith-Schuster said. "He keeps everything real; he keeps it 100. He doesn't lie to you. He doesn't sugarcoat anything. And that's what I like about him. With him, he kind of just told me straight from the get go,' I've had a lot of guys like you.' And I guess Le'Veon was kind of like the same way, and obviously I'm next. So he told Le'Veon, 'Yo, take him under your wing.' So that was pretty cool, and to this day he is able to keep everything real and be honest."
Bell, who has never been afraid to express himself on any number of matters (often addressing his contractual discontent through his rap lyrics), was not shy about sharing his worldview with the rookie. As you might expect.
"Le'Veon is Le'Veon, and we all know how Le'Veon is," Smith-Schuster said. "So he said, 'Don't change for anybody. Whatever you believe in, rock with it, and it's going to pay off.'"
Roethlisberger was quick to feel the new receiver out last spring and during training camp. He would test him to make certain plays and went through a transition period with him, with the young pup needing to earn his trust.
"In practice, you know, 'How is my body type?" Smith-Schuster said in describing the gauntlet with his veteran quarterback. "Can he go up for balls? Can he catch over this back shoulder? Can he catch over a defender? How is he catching in traffic? Just a lot of those, and trying to adjust to my body, because in the game he knows how to throw the ball, and obviously he's a great quarterback and that's what he does."
By midseason the rookie began to feel more comfortable. He was earning regular targets and starting to get in the end zone for one of the AFC's premier teams, and also contributed a touchdown in the return game as well. He had already become the youngest player since 1964 to score a touchdown (Week 2) and by Week 7 he had become the first player under the age of 21 to record three touchdowns. And Week 8 was his real coming-out party, hauling in seven passes for 193 yards (his first 100-yard game) with a touchdown in a tough, 20-15 win over Detroit in which his contributions were essential to victory.
From there Smith-Schuster keyed the Steelers' playoff push and, in his final seven regular-season games, amassed 41 catches for 686 yards and five receiving touchdowns (averaging nearly 100 yards per game), shattering his own preseason goals for his first full season (he was hoping for 30-odd catches for maybe 400 yards a few TDs entering the season, he told me). He tried not to focus on all of the other weapons already established on this offense, instead, at first, concentrating where he could fit in.
"I was moreso looking at how can I help this team." he said, "and for me, with my physical-ness and my size (6-1, 215) it's going to start out with me blocking. And that's what I took huge pride in, my blocking, and it eventually got me on the field, and eventually got me some catches in the games, and as the season goes on, later down the road, I ended up with a few touchdowns, and a couple of catches, and I was able to make a name for myself."
So, except for hiring a speed coach this winter to do some top-secret drills to try to add acceleration and more wiggle and elusiveness to his game, don't expect to see much different from Smith-Schuster in 2018. He still breaks out the bike from time to time, he's getting used to being noticed whenever he goes out in Pennsylvania or California (or anywhere else, for that matter) and he's going to be Ju Ju, 100 percent, in 2018 and beyond.
All of that growing up and maturity stuff can wait, for at least another year.
"Nah, honestly I'm still the same, who I am," Smith-Schuster said when probed about any newfound maturity. "I'm just having fun, but now I'm 21. So that's the big difference."