Catching on quickly

Ike Hilliard has had success working with rookie wide receivers in the NFL previously, but never under the pandemic-influenced restrictions teams have been forced to work around this season.

So be it, the Steelers' new wide receivers coach reasons.

"Every year is the same for me," Hilliard emphasized. "I'm not going to make any excuses. We're going to get these guys ready to play. These kids are extremely talented, it's just our job to get the most out of them.

"We're not gonna make any excuses about how much time we missed in the offseason on the grass or any of those things. We've worked virtually, we've worked hard. We have to now make sure that when we do get real snaps we maximize those and we get the most out of those players on a snap-by-snap basis. It's gonna be no different this year. These young men are going to be productive and we're all going to be proud of the product we put on the field."

In translating the work the Steelers' wide receivers are putting in during the early stages of an improvised training camp into production on the field in September, Hilliard said he'll lean on "in-helmet experience" acquired during his 12 seasons as an NFL player.

His lessons will include the importance of understanding timing and spacing as they relate to an ability to get open and catch the ball, and an appreciation of how roles can evolve during the course of a game.

Such nuances were gleaned while catching 546 passes for 6,397 yards and 35 touchdowns in 161 career NFL regular-season games (and 106 NFL starts), while playing and coaching under the likes of Sean Payton, former Steelers wide receivers coach Richard Mann, and Jon and Jay Gruden.

But Hilliard didn't need to recall what playing for the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV taught him to grasp what the Steelers have in second-round pick Chase Claypool.

"You cant teach 6-4, 238, 4.41," Hilliard said, referencing Claypool's height, weight and speed in the 40-yard dash. "That's just something that doesn't fall off of a tree. You get a chance to harness that kind of talent and kind of shape it and mold it into something that can be really special, I think as an organization we all jump at that. He can do so much for the football team and affect the football team in a positive manner outside of playing receiver, and we love that. We're gonna love his physicality, his play-making ability and his speed."

Claypool is positioned to be Hilliard's next prized first-year pupil, following in the footsteps of prospects such as second-round pick Robert Woods in 2013 in Buffalo and third-round selection Terry McLaurin in 2019 in Washington.

McLaurin wound up catching 58 passes for 919 yards and seven TDs as a rookie last season.

'Last year opened my eyes more than anything else," Hilliard said. "When you put the time in and you put the work in and you are put in position to make plays and you make plays, it doesn't matter when you were drafted. It doesn't matter how long it took you to get on spot in terms of the organization, or on campus, however you want to coin that term. If Chase does what we expect him to do, and that's make plays early and often, Chase is going to play a lot, he's gonna be really good.

"That's what we expect from a lot of those guys. I learned that about Terry McLaurin and young players wholeheartedly last year. The world expected him to be a special teams player and he ended up being our No. 1 last year. We expect the same if not more from Chase or any other young man that wants to step up and make plays."

At the other end of the wide receivers' room is fourth-year pro JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has the most experience with the Steelers of the nine receivers on the roster (including James Washington, currently on the reserve/COVID-19 list).

Smith-Schuster caught 111 passes for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns in 2018 but the numbers dropped to 42-552-3 in an injury-plagued, 2019 campaign.

The Steelers will want and need more from Smith-Schuster this season.

Hilliard's been tasked with helping to make that happen.

"JuJu and I have talked, JuJu understands," Hilliard said. "At the end of the day it's our job as players and coaches to perform and he understands that. He's going to be great this year. He's going to do everything in his power to stay healthy, No. 1. And outside of availability being the best ability, the rest of that stuff will take care of itself.

"We all know that JuJu's a play-maker. We all know that he's going to be a guy that we want to get the ball to to jump-start our offense in a big way. He is looking forward to being JuJu."

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