JuJu Smith-Schuster, still just 23, is one of the NFL’s best young wide receivers. In his first three seasons with the Steelers, he put up 211 catches for 2,895 yards and 17 touchdowns in only 42 games. He’s looking for a big Year 4 after his 2019 season was marred by injury — to both himself and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Smith-Schuster talked to Sporting News ahead of Pittsburgh’s 2020 NFL kickoff — in Week 1 on “Monday Night Football” against the Giants — about his two pro teams, the Steelers and DAZN Canada.
SPORTING NEWS: The 2020 NFL season is here for the Steelers and the rest of the league. Did you think this might not happen this year?
JUJU SMITH-SCHUSTER: I actually did. Noticing that they were canceling school, canceling sporting events all across the world — soccer, basketball, baseball — I kind of lost hope. Then they all started to come back and I could be excited again.
SN: During this difficult year, how important has it been to have Mike Tomlin as the head coach to guide you and your team through it?
JJSS: It’s awesome. He’s one of the few coaches of color in this league. He’s very transparent on how he approaches everything. The one thing he doesn’t do is shy away from the issues — he’s always about social justice. He brings it to the team, he talks about it — how we can come together and set the stage. As a young man, learning from someone who’s been through it, going through it now, for him to have kids who are my age, too, it shows a lot. I live and learn from him day in, day out, on the field and off the field.
SN: With yourself, Diontae Johnson, rookie first-round pick Chase Claypool (a native of Abbotsford, B.C.) and James Washington, is this the best receiving corps you have been around?
JJSS: Not just our receiving corps, but having James Conner back, Jaylen Samuels, Vance McDonald, too. Eric Ebron has a lot of games under his belt and is a pro. To have Chase, he brings a lot to our team as a deep threat. For us to go out there, it will be a fun year.
SN: How much different is the offensive vibe now than it was without Ben Roethlisberger for most of last season?
JJSS: One of our biggest factors, a Hall of Fame quarterback, Big Ben, is back. Playing with him just my first two years, those times you remember how much he means. Everyone’s healthy and everyone’s ready again to show what the Steelers are made of.
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SN: There’s been some sort of great offseason buzz related to the other teams in the AFC North, led by the Ravens. Do you feel like you guys are flying under the radar a bit in the division race?
JJSS: Those teams are great teams with amazing players, but at the end of the day, when you talk about the Steelers’ defense, how dominant they are, Big Ben when he’s healthy, guys who he has around him, it’s our time to go out and make a statement on Monday night. We’re here, we’re back in the AFC North — and we’re going to run the table.
SN: What were your impressions of just how big, fast and talented Chase is as a rookie?
JJSS: Coming in at 6-4, being able to run a 4.4 (in the 40-yard dash), it’s crazy. The kid is blessed. He’s started out on a good foot and doing the right things for us. I can’t wait to see what he does in his first game. I’m excited.
SN: Even though there’s no USC-Notre Dame game this year, are you still enjoying having Chase represent the Irish vs. you, the Trojan?
JJSS: That’s one of the first things we talked about — the Shamrock, the rivalry. I played against him when he was there and we beat them. With me and Zach Banner, we can look forward to it every year with Chase and Stephon Tuitt — the loser has to do pushups, things like that. It’s really funny.
SN: USC keeps churning out talented NFL receivers — it’s Michael Pittman Jr. this year, with Amon-Ra St. Brown ready to hit the league soon. What is it about the Trojans program and wideouts such as you and the Rams’ Robert Woods?
JJSS: I honestly believe with USC, how prestigious of a college it is, we’re all going in with that mindset, we’re coming here, we’re going to play our three years and we’re going to go out. A lot of wide receivers there do that. The preparation — I had Tee Martin when I was there — to go out there and ball, know the plays, know what I’m doing, is great. The way USC runs a playbook is pretty much how NFL teams runs theirs, and the more you know, the more you can play well.
We also do special teams well there. I did punt and kick returns in college, and I was able to do that in the NFL. The transition was easy for me after it was really fun. That’s why every year we have a great wide receiver who comes out.
SN: When you hooked up with DAZN Canada about a year ago, did you know how popular the NFL and your team was up there?
JJSS: Chase, he talked about how he was a big Steelers fan in Vancouver. Toronto, Winnipeg — it’s so crazy how big our Steelers fan base is. To have Steeler Nation like that up there, it’s pretty cool.
SN: How much do you love working with DAZN?
JJSS: We’ve done some amazing things with not just football, but boxing and other events. It was fun representing them in the Super Bowl in Miami. The biggest thing with DAZN Canada is you can also watch NFL RedZone along with all the games. We’re doing some amazing things at DAZN. It’s awesome for me to be a DAZN representative because we have a big Steelers fan base in Canada and I’m able to get my name out there. It’s a great partnership, I love working with them and hopefully we have many more years to come.
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SN: If Steelers fans in Canada don’t have DAZN, why is now the right time to subscribe?
JJSS: DAZN has more live football than anyone else in Canada. If you’ve never seen RedZone, you’re missing out on all the big plays. If you’re a big fantasy guy like me and you want to see all your players score touchdowns and celebrate, DAZN is where it’s at. I’ll make sure to count my fantasy points — and I’ll count everyone else’s, too. You’ve got to stay tuned.
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