A year ago, JuJu Smith-Schuster stood in the media room at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, accepting the Joe Greene Great Performance Award, presented to the team’s top rookie by the Pro Football Writers of America.
On Thursday he stood in the same place, in just his second season, accepting the team’s Most Valuable Player award. This time, the award was voted on by his teammates, the ones who know best what he brings to the team.
“He is a great teammate,” said James Conner. “He is very selfless. Always puts other people first. His play on the field is very reliable. He is a guy we can count on. There are a lot of guys on the team we can count on. It’s just his year. He has been improving every year he has been here. He deserves it.”
Smith-Schuster is first in the AFC with 106 receptions, tied for fifth in the NFL, and is fourth in the league with 1,389 yards, seventh most by a player in Steelers history.
“He is a guy who has been really consistent,” said T.J. Watt. “In the NFL a lot of guys go out and have one good play or one good game. To be able to do it over the course of the season, over the course of his short career is awesome to see.
“He has the respect of all of the guys in this locker room for the way he works and approaches practice and it obviously carries over to games.”
Smith-Schuster has eight 100-yard receiving games, third-most by any NFL player through Week 16 of the season. He recorded his 150th career reception in his 28th career game and reached the 1,500-yard receiving mark in his 21st career game, both new team records for time to reach the milestones.
“It shows how hard he works,” said Darrius Heyward-Bey. “He worked hard in the offseason. He knew there were going to be a lot of eyes on him this season and he rose to the occasion. He works hard. I knew from Day 1 this kid was going to be special. We are just at the beginning. The sky is going to be the limit.
“He cares about his craft. He wants to be the best. He wants to learn. He can humble himself to learn from anybody. He just wants to get better. If you have knowledge he is willing to take it in. That is rule number one of being a pro, being coachable.
“I don’t like to put a lot of pressure on him, but I see a lot of Anquin Boldin in him. I see a lot of Larry Fitzgerald in him. Two guys who know how to play football. He knows how to play football.”
It’s not just the passing game that Smith-Schuster has had an impact on. His blocking has been compared to that of former Steelers great Hines Ward, and for good reason.
“He is a beast,” said Conner. “We are always showing tapes of him knocking down defenders and not scared to get down in there. A Hall of Fame guy like Hines Ward, JuJu imitates his game as far as being physical. Knowing where the sticks are. Being reliable on the field I can definitely see some similarities there.
“He is an all-around great guy, teammate and player.”
And as Conner said, his teammates really think he is a beast.
“He is a beast. He is a gamer,” said Watt. “It all starts in practice. I see the way he works, the way he approaches the game. He loves the game. He has fun with it. That is everything you want in your team MVP.”