The Pittsburgh Steelers had a spot to fill on their coaching staff heading into the 2020 season, and it was the vacant role of wide receivers coach after the death of Darryl Drake almost one year ago.
Ray Sherman filled in for Drake during the 2019 season, but Mike Tomlin made it clear he was never the long term answer with the role. This offseason the organization decided to bring in former player, Ike Hilliard, as their new wide receivers coach.
Hilliard had achieved a lot during his time as a player at both Florida and in the NFL, but has also shown he is very capable as a coach at the professional level too. Hilliard spoke with the media for the first time since being hired this offseason during a group Zoom call, and he spoke highly of the receivers he will be coaching soon.
‘Thrilled’ was the word Hilliard used to describe his feelings about coaching this group of young wide receivers, but there were some receivers he had specific praise for as training camp is just getting started for the veterans on the team.
“Chase (Claypool) is going to play a lot and is going to be good.” Hilliard said when referencing the Steelers’ top pick from the 2020 NFL Draft. He went on to say how he isn’t concerned with Claypool’s ability to play catch up after an offseason which saw nothing but virtual workouts.
After just being placed on the Reserve/COVID List, Hilliard loves what he sees from third year receiver James Washington. He described Washington as a “freakish” athlete, and the type of player the team absolutely “loves” having on their roster.
As for two of the more electrifying receivers on the team’s roster, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson, Hilliard said “[JuJu] looks great. He’s worked incredibly hard. ... Diontae needs to continue to grow, detail his work, and mature, things of that nature.”
Again, when Hilliard speaks to players they know he has been there, done that. He has the resume as both a coach and player to immediately gain respect. Nonetheless, he has been making a good impression on his young receivers from the start.
“What I really enjoyed about it was the first time he called he didn’t call to talk about football,” James Washington told Teresa Varley of Steelers.com. “He called to talk about family and try to help me understand the kind of person he is. Coach (Darryl) Drake was one of my favorite coaches. The thing about him is I feel like Coach Ike is kind of like Coach Drake.
“He seems like a family man first, and then a football coach. I feel like he really cares about the player. He wants the best for us. He isn’t just there for the job. He wants to make sure we are good men and good players.”
Trust is a tough thing to develop, especially when you don’t have the ability to meet with players in person, relying on technology to build a rapport.
“The first impression was really good.” Washington added. “I have a lot of faith in him and I am glad to work for him.”
Hilliard will have his work cut out for him in Pittsburgh. Getting the most out of a unit of Smith-Schuster, Johnson, Washington, Claypool, Deon Cain and Ryan Switzer gives Hilliard plenty of weapons at his disposal to take the receiving corps to the next level in 2020, and beyond.