LATROBE, Pa. — A gleeful boy flapped every limb as he worked his way up a hill and toward his dad.
“I got JuJu! I got JuJu!” he shouted, holding a signed football from the Pittsburgh Steelers marquee name at Saint Vincent College.
A few days earlier, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster had participated in a gender reveal with fans — “It’s a boy,” JuJu said — and Sunday after practice he targeted kids only when signing dozens of autographs. He made a few exceptions for the adults who had waited for a while. And in between, he signed the head of a fan who parlayed the signature into a tattoo and season tickets.
Training camp places a sizable spotlight on Smith-Schuster, but he already knew that, for two reasons. The departure of Antonio Brown via trade to the Raiders elevates Smith-Schuster’s role and profile. But his blend of playmaking and personality commands top billing.
“There’s not really weight on my shoulders. I’ve been doing this my whole life,” he said.
Smith-Schuster plans to stay true to his playful demeanor while seriously attacking leading-man status. He’s off to a good start in camp, scoring a goal-line touchdown on three straight days during the team’s “seven shots” drill to open each session.
Coming off his first Pro Bowl season, Smith-Schuster, 22, isn’t overthinking his job.
“There are times when I’m still a kid or I play around,” Smith-Schuster said. “But I’ll say a few words. At the end of the day, I try to show by playing on the field and showing how to make plays and ball.”
That’s exactly what quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wants. Last year, Smith-Schuster’s inexperience showed at times. He often looked affected by bad plays, and Roethlisberger had extended talks with him on the field numerous times.
Smith-Schuster looks more in command of his emotions now, though Roethlisberger doesn’t want him to change much.
“He’s himself, and that’s what makes him special,” Roethlisberger said. “He’s still fun-loving and silly at times, but because it’s his third year, you see growth and maturity. You see him accepting that leadership role, especially in that room.”
Part of Smith-Schuster’s role, he said, is to embolden. He’s spreading the message that every receiver has No. 1 capabilities and could get the ball on any play. He’s prepared to draw double-teams and let others benefit. He’ll get his, of course, although first he needs to lose about five pounds. He says he enters each camp around 220 and works his way down to 215, his playing weight.
These are all work-related issues, which is why Smith-Schuster reported without much fanfare, walking around the dorms instead of through the main entrance where reporters awaited players.
Smith-Schuster’s answer for why he eschewed a grand entrance set a tone.
“I don’t really need the paparazzi and all the people taking pictures like, ‘JuJu came in this way, JuJu rode a bike, JuJu this, JuJu that’ — nah, JuJu came here to work. It’s not about me, it’s about the team.”