JuJu Smith-Schuster’s rookie season was the perfect storm.
A confluence of events concluding at precisely the right moment to create the phenomenon known as JuJu. Looking back, certain events transpired in the exact sequence necessary to transform JuJu into a social media icon.
Never before had a rookie so quickly endeared himself to Steeler Nation. He went from “Who did they just draft in the second round?” straight to beloved cult status in what seemed like an instant.
JuJu blasted onto the scene just when the team, the city, and the league needed him most.
JuJu’s initial season just happened to coincide with the NFL veering from their no-fun-league reputation as they lifted the ban on touchdown celebrations, most of them at least. JuJu’s youthful exuberance and creativity were on full display each week as he helped choreograph celebrations that multiple teammates were excited to participate in.
I must admit I have always been a fan of the Barry Sanders score-and-hand-the-ball-to-the-referee type of behavior, or the act-like-you-have-been-there-before-and-plan-on-coming-back scenario. However, the celebrations did seem to have a unifying effect on the team and they really pumped up both players and fans.
JuJu’s arrival and ever growing popularity was a welcome distraction for the NFL as they were dealing with what seemed like weekly protests and stories which were either political or social in nature. At what seemed like the pinnacle of the fallout from the anthem protest, tragedy struck JuJu’s world.
Somebody stole his bicycle!
As I read about this unfathomable crime as it rolled across the bottom of my television screen I assumed we were talking about somebody stealing his motorcycle. You can imagine my surprise when I learned it was actually just a bike. I knew he was young; the fact he was the youngest player in the league last year was mentioned by every sportscaster whenever they mentioned his name all season long, however I had no idea he didn’t even have a drivers license and was riding a bike around the city of Pittsburgh.
You can’t make this stuff up folks.
Next thing you know there was a reward being offered for the safe return of JuJu’s bike and the story blew up on social media, not just around Pittsburgh but all across the nation. The story made Sportscenter that night and was a topic of discussion trending on national media. Instant celebrity status via social media like the NFL had never seen.
What made the whole story relevant and gave his newfound fame it’s staying power is the fact the kid can actually play. He is simply a baller.
JuJu’s game last season resembled a young stallion running in the field that had yet to be broken. He might not have always known what he was doing, but he gave it his full effort, all the while showcasing his uniquely physical nature for such a young player. His toughness and kamikaze blocking style drew comparisons with the one-and-only Steelers great Hines Ward.
High praise indeed.
Now comes the hard part. Trying to build upon, or even maintain, last year’s performance.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is no longer an unknown commodity. Last season no one knew what to expect from him. He probably surprised himself with his almost immediate productivity. Any production he was able to provide had to be considered a pleasant surprise considering his age and inexperience.
Give the kid his due. His play was superior for any receiver regardless of experience, and he rode the wave of popularity as far as it would carry him.
This season JuJu will not be a surprise to any of the Steelers’ opponents. He will be an integral component of the Steelers offense, and the opposition will game plan for him accordingly. He will often times be matched up with the first or second best cornerback by the opposing defense, instead of the third or fourth best like he was frequently last season.
These adjustments by opposing defenses might seem minuscule to some, but it creates tougher match ups with more talented defenders that cause many young receivers to struggle in their second seasons.
The only way to lessen the impact of these defensive adjustments by the opposition is through hard work and attention to the details. He must focus his off season workouts on strengthening his weaknesses and fine tuning his techniques. He appears to have the work ethic and discipline to pull this off, but only time will tell.
He doesn’t need to look any further than his own locker room for inspiration, to see who is arguably the hardest working player in the league — Antonio Brown. Follow his lead and Smith-Schuster will be just fine.