LATROBE, Pa. — JuJu Smith-Schuster is a character, that's for sure. He also works hard ... really hard.
Somewhere between getting his dog, Boujee, an agent and an Instagram account, playing Fortnite with Drake and Ninja and having his bike stolen, the Steelers wide receiver has risen to become one of the most recognizable solo brands in all of team sports.
That story, the one where he smiles on YouTube, enjoys video games and gives season tickets to fans who tattoo his signature on their head ... it sometimes gives football fans the wrong impression about JuJu the football player.
It maybe once did for me, but no longer.
For me, or probably anyone who has seen him regularly at practice, his work ethic has suspended any doubts. He spent so much of his first two NFL camps watching the way Antonio Brown works before, during and after practice -- before giving just as much energy to the sunburnt fans -- and learning from Hines Ward ... so this really shouldn't shock anyone. JuJu just ... works hard.
Let's talk for a minute about that time with Ward. Because, when JuJu took down Vontaze Burfict and then stood over him in a taunting manner, it reminded so much of Steelers Nation of the way Ward played his position -- a true-to-Georgia bulldog who took as much pride in crack blocks against the Ravens as he did touchdown grabs.
Well, there might be something to that Burfict comparison. At least, if Monday's camp workout is any indication.
Most blocks, the noticeable ones, are the ones that change a defender's positioning from upright to horizontal rather quickly. There's not as much glory in grabbing a cornerback inside his shoulder pads, controlling him for your running back and making him a non-factor. It doesn't get noticed. It doesn't precede taunting penalties.
At training camp, though, in front of the Steelers' most faithful fans, it gets noticed.
I was shooting the Steelers running backs, guys who get a little more credit for their blocking ability, catching tosses from Ben Roethlisberger and his army of camp quarterbacks for a little while. It's pretty rare, once the pads go on, for the helmets to come off at all during drills. But, that's what was happening, and you don't miss a chance to shoot Benny Snell with the hair in the wind and sun:
Shortly after kneeling in that spot, though, I moved my eyes to what I thought was defensive backs vs. receivers in some one-on-one action. The problem with that guess was that every Steelers quarterback was still in front of me. There wouldn't be anyone to throw the ball in that scenario.
I walked over and realized it was a blocking drill for receivers to work on sealing off their defenders, and for the defenders to work on shedding blocks and getting to running backs. JuJu was among the next in line and Dale Lolley turned to me and said, "He drove [Justin] Layne back 5 yards last time."
The sideline was cluttered, but I found a spot where I could shoot between the bodies waiting their turn and Tom Bradley coaching up the guys who just competed ... and William Gay racing up and down the sidelines when one of his guys did
something he approved of honestly anything.
Being honest, it made it hard to see what was happening, let alone photograph it. But, hey, they don't put on training camp so I can take photos.
When JuJu lined up again against Layne, this was the scene that emerged from behind the wall of Steelers:
There were enough glimpses between the waiting jerseys that I could see JuJu drive Layne 5 ... 10 ... 15 yards down field. Layne just looked like he got sick of it and swung JuJu around a bit by the jersey. Of course, not to be upstaged, JuJu pulled Layne over top of him to continue the rumble:
After the that rumble and tumble, the duo popped up and JuJu immediately put his hands up like he was waiting to counter from his Philly Shell-like stance and then burst into a playful laugh. He dropped the puncher's facade and waited for the approach from Layne:
Gay came to JuJu right away, put his arm around the receiver and the two laughed for a bit before talking for a couple of minutes. That's when, I think, JuJu's plan to have some fun after showing the return on his hard work to rookie Layne.
After the queued receivers and defensive backs took their runs, JuJu lined back up -- this time against Marcus Allen.
Me, to Dale this time: "He's going to do the same thing to Marcus Allen, yeah?"
"I don't know. There's a reason they chose him to go against him," he shot back.
We, uh, were both wrong.
JuJu lined up across from Allen, chose not to engage him, and ran a fade past him and in front of the lined up defensive backs. Donte Moncrief, playing running back, took a step back and threw a lob out towards JuJu's route.
That's when a Steelers coach, one I couldn't make out from the photos, made the best pass defense of camp so far as he leaped to swat the sure "touchdown:"
No catch, but more laughter from JuJu & Co. That's when I took the photo that is atop this piece. Like Ward, like AB, JuJu now gets the chance to show off his smile behind his face mask after playing hard and having fun.
Like those Steelers No. 1 receivers, the current No. 1 made sure to work hard and set the example doing so before choosing to play hard. If you work your butt off in front of your fans, set the example by being ... the standard (I actually rolled my eyes at myself) ... and catch what's thrown to you, there will always be time to balance that work with chances to throw your head back and laugh.
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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