Though Elmo may have loved them, his love was unrequited. The presence of the red monster, in the form of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s ubiquitous backpack, had run its course. That same cavernous grin of delight, that same inexorable joy in eyes that followed you everywhere, every single day…USC coaches and teammates were almost bothered by it. No accessory better suited the buoyant 18-year-old receiver who wore it. It didn’t matter.
This is a new year, the coach said. Get a new backpack, the quarterback said.
So off went Smith-Schuster to Lakewood Center shopping mall. His first stop, the Disney Store, didn’t have anything worthwhile. Then he arrived at Spencer’s, the mother lode of disposable kitsch. There, he located a backpack that was firmly of the moment and of a new era, one that would set him apart and please everyone from the McKay Center to his little brothers and sisters. Plus, it was like 10% off.
This is the story of JuJu Smith-Schuster and his Minions backpack.
“Dude, it lights up,” Smith-Schuster says. “It speaks. I had to step my game up. My Elmo backpack, it was just Elmo with nothing.”
There is always something with JuJu Smith-Schuster. He is an AirWheel-riding, cartoon knapsack-wearing, Ultimate Frisbee- and rugby-dabbling sophomore for USC who's likely next in the line of great Trojans wideouts.
You might say that he is an archetype for how a fiercely independent player can thrive in a regularly stuffy team sport, but this implies someone will follow Smith-Schuster’s example. That would require a player willing to shape his hair into a Mohawk and then paint it cardinal and gold while wearing a kid’s backpack to football practice. He then must very diligently put in work that will permit him to likely catch about 1,500 yards or more of passes before he turns 19. The prospects of finding such a person seem highly dubious.
But that’s sort of the point.
“Everybody is different, everybody has their own character,” Smith-Schuster says, as USC’s Pac-12 opener against Stanford looms Saturday. “Our equipment man, he always tells me, ‘Be yourself. Don’t ever change. This brought you where you are today.’ I’m not going to change just because you don’t like me. That’s me. I wouldn’t change for anybody, and I wouldn’t want anybody to change.”
It’s a fine philosophy. But if he wasn’t the caliber of player who can record 10 catches for 192 yards on a single night, as Smith-Schuster did against Idaho last weekend, you can be sure the demands of coaches or other outsiders would stomp this perspective into dust particles. USC’s star sophomore has earned the space he’s given. Smith-Schuster has a fascinating capacity to be meticulous and conscientious about both setting himself apart and fitting in perfectly, demonstrating a football ambition that, in some ways, his position coach has never seen.
Yes, Smith-Schuster may receive team-issued socks and, just to be contrary, be sure to wear them differently than everyone else. He also spent an off-season drilling down on minutia like route-running and improving his release off the line, mindful that the raw ability in a 6’2”, 215-pound frame would only get him so far. “When it comes to football, he’s all football,” USC receivers coach Tee Martin says. “No distractions. Always early. Attentive in meetings. I’ve never had an issue, not one, with him trying to do something to be different. Not when it comes to football.”
The 54 catches for 724 yards as a freshman—which helped earn him second-team All-Pac 12 honors as an all-purpose player—underlined that. But the assiduousness had been established long before.
Playing in the premier little leagues of the Los Angeles area and then for powerhouse Long Beach Polytechnic High ensured that Smith-Schuster set the nonsense aside for football. Had he not, the competition would’ve devoured him. “By the time he got to high school,” Martin says, “he was already a street legend out here.” He had been raised to distinguish times to work and times to play. Through high school, Sundays were for church and homework, with no exceptions; the first time Martin called Smith-Schuster on a Sunday during the recruiting process, the assistant’s call went unreturned for hours. When Smith-Schuster finally called back, he apologetically explained this one non-negotiable condition of his college courtship.
Once he committed to the Trojans, Smith-Schuster says he began studying the receivers already on the roster, standouts like George Farmer and Nelson Agholor, as well as any defensive backs he knew he’d face once he arrived on campus. The All-America honors at Long Beach Poly didn’t dull his workplace strategy at USC. During team walkthroughs, Smith-Schuster trailed veterans to their positions and stood within two or three feet of his position-mate. “Right on his heels,” Martin says. “Like his shadow.” At the snap, Smith-Schuster traced the steps of the player taking the actual rep, running the same route, even pantomiming a catch after the ball landed in the other player’s hands.
No one asked Smith-Schuster to do this. He just did it. Martin initially bristled at what he perceived to be a freshman clowning around simply because he hadn’t seen anything like this. Then he altered his diagnosis. “No, this dude is serious,” the Trojans assistant remembers thinking. “He doesn’t want to come out.”
It was quite a plan: Smith-Schuster would be the next in a line of great USC receivers by being…next to them in line. Though it’s a bit of a platitude, the Trojans believe this ambition explains the abundant early returns on the field. "JuJu is, if not the most, one of the most competitive guys on our team," head coach Steve Sarkisian says. "It’s all day, every day."
“That’s why I came here, that’s one of the reasons receivers come to USC,” Smith-Schuster says. “You had (Marqise) Lee, you had Robert Woods and George and Nelson. And then who’s the next guy? We don’t know who the next guy is. It drives me a lot. I want to leave my legacy here knowing I was one of the best receivers at USC.”
It’s impossible to guarantee anything about a teenager. But it’s easier to be optimistic about these aspirations when you consider that the underpinning is a fairly scrupulous, emotionally intelligent perspective.
After USC eviscerated rival Notre Dame by 35 points in the regular-season finale last November, most of the Trojans left the locker room and went directly to family and friends for celebration. Smith-Schuster, as a high-profile local kid riding the adrenaline swell of victory, had every reason to do the same. Instead, he made his way to the visitors’ locker room where he waited outside for more than 10 minutes for a hello and a hug with Mike Denbrock, the Fighting Irish assistant coach who recruited him.
Then there was the day JuJu Smith became JuJu Smith-Schuster, a day planned since the talented receiver finished his high school career. Lawrence Schuster met JuJu’s mother, Sammy, when JuJu was four years old. They married two years later. In JuJu, Lawrence saw a little boy who could run and catch and loved to be outside, so he introduced his stepson to football. The two engaged in video game battles over the years—Lawrence was good at Madden, JuJu says, but he was also always interested in old fighting games like Tekken and Mortal Kombat—and now just mostly talk about life, family and school, like inseparable fathers and sons do.
“Without him,” JuJu says, “I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
So last summer, when he had the time, he began the arduous process of honoring that feeling. He signed papers, his parents signed papers, his biological father signed papers—“It’s not easy,” JuJu notes—and now he has new licenses and student ID cards with a new name.
After an offensive series in the opener against Arkansas State, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum video boards showed a replay of one particular catch. For the first time over stadium loudspeakers, the receiver on the screen heard five syllables that brought a smile to his face: JuJu Smith-Schuster.
“It was pretty cool,” he says.
It is another way Smith-Schuster is just a little different, another anomaly that makes him precisely who he is. He will be the player who cuts down an already cut-down Under Armour shirt and who doesn’t wear arm bands or sleeves because he believes the less gear you wear, the less you’re weighted down and the faster you run. He will be the kid who stops by the rugby and Ultimate Frisbee clubs at USC, not to play but just to check them out and “network,” as he puts it. He will be the guy riding the AirWheel to Koreatown or a downtown movie theater with his friend Kevin, whose last name escapes the USC receiver, so for the purposes of conversation he’s just Kevin From Somewhere Near Oakland. He will wear a Minions backpack for a year, or presumably at least until everyone starts complaining again.
Will Smith-Schuster become the next great USC wide receiver?
To answer that, maybe it’s instructive to return to the moment he says he met Kevin From Somewhere Near Oakland.
It was Kevin who owned an AirWheel at the time Smith-Schuster came across him on campus. His curiosity duly piqued, the USC receiver says he introduced himself and asked about the contraption, and the two exchanged numbers. Soon enough, after some practice, Smith-Schuster had his own AirWheel. It was a simple process, really. He saw something he coveted. And he set to work.
“If I want it,” Smith-Schuster says, “I’ll try to get it.”
Each week, The Walkthrough will talk to two assistant coaches about a key upcoming matchup. For Week 3, it’s Northwestern vs. Duke and the Wildcats’ redshirt freshman QB Clayton Thorson making his first road start against standout safety Jeremy Cash and the Blue Devils.
Mick McCall, Northwestern offensive coordinator/QB coach: “Number one, Clayton has some great athleticism, so he can make some plays with his feet. He also does a good job of moving around in the pocket and finding the next guy open or buying just a little bit of time to get the ball off and make a completion. He does a lot of great things you normally wouldn’t see from a freshman. Even though he has some checks that he has to make, compared to a year ago when we had Trevor (Siemian), we’re not putting all that stuff on him. But as time goes on, he’s going to know exactly what we’re calling and why we’re calling it. (Duke plays) with a lot of speed and quickness. They’re real aggressive, a lot of different pressures. They’re all over the place that way. Clayton just has to slow it down for himself. Right before the snap, take a breath and then go play. And he’ll be fine.”
Matt Guerrieri, Duke safeties coach: “Jeremy is the energy guy on our practice field, every rep. He is the voice of our defense right now. He gained between five and 10 pounds this off-season and kept his speed where it was at, so guys are feeling him in a different way when he comes to tackle them. We talk about wining junction points, whether that’s making a tackle or getting off a perimeter block—there are junction points every single play on defense. Jeremy dominates junction points, and that’s what makes him special. I give (Thorson) a lot of credit for what he’s done the first two weeks. A talented passer, a talented runner, the speed he has in the open field—he can do a lot of things and really makes them go. The good thing for us defensively is we go against a run and pass and option team every day in practice. We have some of those things ingrained in our defense.”
The hurry up
• Clemson at Louisville: The Cardinals’ quarterback duel has become a quarterback mess. So maybe it’s best to stick with Kyle Bolin and settle the operation down. The Tigers, meanwhile, arguably begin a make-or-break stretch: First Louisville, then Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and Boston College at home.
• Florida State at Boston College: Around this time last year, Steve Addazio’s Eagles stunned USC at home. On Nov. 22 last year, they nearly ended the Seminoles’ unbeaten season in a three-point road loss. Dalvin Cook was superhuman against USF last week, but Everett Golson (14 of 26 for 163 yards) will have to be better.
• Illinois at North Carolina: Given the upheaval of the Tim Beckman firing, this is actually a fairly critical game for the Fighting Illini. They’ve blistered two overmatched teams thus far. The Tar Heels are a peer, at least athletically. Win this, and maybe the good vibes snowball.
• Northwestern at Duke: Four FBS teams haven’t allowed a touchdown yet. The Wildcats are one of them. A win could stamp Northwestern as a legit Big Ten West contender because the Blue Devils are similarly stingy, too. They’ve allowed just one touchdown in two games.
• Northern Illinois at Ohio State: The Buckeyes’ sloppiness against Hawaii was predictable on a short week, right? The quarterback thing will sort itself out, right? The MAC’s assault on major-conference teams couldn’t claim another victim and upend everything we know, right? Right?
• Georgia Tech at Notre Dame: An unenviable situation for the Fighting Irish: One week to prepare a new starting quarterback in DeShone Kizer and one week to prepare for the Yellow Jackets’ option offense. It’s a chance for Paul Johnson’s crew to pounce and infiltrate too-early playoff speculation.
• Nebraska at Miami: The Hurricanes are among the least-convincing 2–0 teams in the country. It’s the beginning of the stretch that will define Al Golden’s future: After Nebraska, whose gutting Week 1 loss to BYU looks a little better now, Miami plays at Cincinnati, at Florida State and then Virginia Tech and Clemson at home.
• Auburn at LSU: Please let there be points. Please. Someone think of the points.
• Florida at Kentucky: Mark Stoops and the Wildcats have more stringent tests down the line, but this is the next step in any program’s advancement: Win against vulnerable goliaths, like Florida, to set the table for what comes next.
• Cal at Texas: The Golden Bears have scored 108 points in two games. We’ll see very clearly if the Longhorns’ Jay Norvell-led 42-point output against Rice was a mirage.
• Rutgers at Penn State: It was pretty cool when this matchup was supposed to become a can’t-miss East Coast college football rivalry. I remember when people thought that.
• Pittsburgh at Iowa: This is a convenient way to discern whether the Hawkeyes’ C.J. Beathard (three TDs passing, 77 yards rushing against Iowa State last week) can be a consistently prolific playmaker. Pat Narduzzi’s crew allowed just 110 yards at Akron but could use a surer sign that life is O.K. post-James Conner.
• Stanford at USC: We’ll see if it’s maybe time to worry about the Cardinal under David Shaw, especially if the offense plods and struggles against a second Power Five team. We’ll also see if Cody Kessler and Co. can strafe a defense that is good and not from the Sun Belt.
• Ole Miss at Alabama: The Rebels are averaging 74.5 points per game, and not because they’re full-court pressing a lot and hot from three-point range. But the Crimson Tide have Derrick Henry, who can help them be really good at keep-away, and a memory of losing in Oxford last fall.
• BYU at UCLA: Is no one else hoping the Cougars’ new quarterback plays some defense this year and makes too much contact with a receiver, resulting in… a Mangum P.I.? No? Just me? Anyway, this suddenly has colossal ramifications for the playoff résumés on both sides, given how well BYU has played thus far.
The hair-raising end
If this Walkthrough felt more like a plod, I apologize. I prepared on a short week, due to a very important family event. But to echo what Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly told his team this week, there’s no room for excuses because no one really cares. You play the schedule as it lies, with what you have, and then trust the committee will consider all contributing factors in the end.
So it’s Week 3. Congrats, sis. And let’s do this, C.C.