On days during organized team activities when the Steelers brought the Juggs machine to the practice field, rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster made sure he stayed late and caught his share of passes.
At least 240 of them, by his estimation.
Smith-Schuster would catch them in sets of 20, from distances far away to up close and practically right in front of the machine. It was a way of toughening his hands and seeing passes come at a variety of speeds.
How many passes zipping out of the machine would Smith-Schuster handle successfully?
“All of them,” he said. “If I mess up, I start the whole set over again.”
Smith-Schuster likes the challenge of being perfect on the practice field, which he hopes carries over into his first season with the Steelers.
“It’s easy to catch the ball 10 feet away, but when you’re playing inside and the ball is coming a lot faster (out of the quarterback’s hand), you have to be ready for those catches,” Smith-Schuster said.
The early reviews on Smith-Schuster have been positive. From rookie minicamp to OTAs to regular minicamp, the 6-foot-1 receiver and second-round draft pick from USC was a steady presence on the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex practice fields.
“We haven’t had pads on, but JuJu looks like he has a chance to compete,” said offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who is reluctant to heap praise on any rookie until training camp begins July 27 in Latrobe.
Smith-Schuster, 20, is the youngest of 11 receivers the Steelers will take to training camp. He was drafted to help address a weakness at the No. 2 receiver spot last season when Martavis Bryant was serving a season-long suspension and Sammie Coates struggled after breaking fingers on his hand in the first half of the season. Although drafted for his work on the outside, Smith-Schuster also got some repetitions in the slot during OTAs.
“We’ve got great competition at that position, in particular,” Haley said. “Having coached it a bunch of years, that’s a position where competition brings out the best. I think we’ll get a clear picture as we get through Latrobe and the preseason, and I think that competition will create some players ready to come out of the gate making plays.”
Smith-Schuster said he spent time in the film room studying All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown. He would watch each pass play three times — first to study the play, then to see how the rest of the offense reacts and finally to focus on what Brown is doing.
“You want to play with the best of the best,” Smith-Schuster said.
At USC, Smith-Schuster caught 159 passes for 2,368 yards and 20 touchdowns spanning his sophomore and junior seasons. His NFL draft profile drew comparisons to Anquan Boldin, a 14-year veteran who has 1,076 career receptions.
“I take that as a compliment,” Smith-Schuster said. “Very physical, very strong hands. That’s what I want to bring to the team.”
Smith-Schuster’s blocking and willingness to make the difficult catch over the middle were other traits that attracted the Steelers. They also hope he can help improve the team’s success in the red zone. To that end, he admitted to showing some youthful exuberance during OTAs while lining up in goal-line situations with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
“When I’m thrown in there with Ben, I get too excited. I have to keep calm,” Smith-Schuster said. “He goes to any (receiver), but I have to make my own play.”
In Latrobe, Smith-Schuster hopes to build a better rapport with Roethlisberger.
“I was watching AB and Ben, and that’s eight years they’ve had together,” Smith-Schuster said. “That’s something I want with a quarterback.”
And in case anyone needed a reminder of Smith-Schuster’s talents to tide them over until training camp, he posted a video on his Twitter account this weekend that showcased his highlights at USC.
The title: “Ain’t no complaints.”
None yet, anyway.