LOS ANGELES — JuJu Smith-Schuster was the youngest player participating at February’s NFL Combine, but less than two weeks out from the NFL draft, the 20-year-old is approaching the process with the poise of the veteran.
Certainly he’s got the confidence of a seasoned player, at least.
“I feel like I dominated,” he told reporters at USC’s pro day on March 22. During drills Smith-Schuster showed off his improvement, increasing his vertical and broad jump numbers from the Combine, where he recorded a 32.5 vertical and 9' 3" broad, to 36.5 and 10' 3", respectively. Then he showed off his personality.
It turns out that one of the best playmakers in 2017 college football is also one of the most engaging. For example:
— When asked about what it would be like to stay in state—Smith-Schuster is from Long Beach—the 6' 1", 215-pound receiver said it would be nice, then gave a big sigh. “California tax would be an issue,” he deadpanned. (California has one of the highest state income tax rates in the country.
— In the middle of a scrum of reporters peppering him with questions about his NFL future, Smith-Schuster causally threw out an endorsement for the California Fish Grill, his new favorite lunch destination. Get the Brussels sprouts and Asian salad, he said—and ask for extra sauce.
— Asked what teams are quizzing him on in private meetings and interviews, Smith-Schuster said they want to know, “Do I party a lot? Am I the [fraternity] row?” Why yes, he said, he does like to party. He doesn’t drink or smoke, but “I’m 20 years old. I’m still living life.” No sense in hiding it.
— So if he doesn’t drink and smoke, what does Smith-Schuster do? Well he’s 20, so he enjoys video games. He also has an active imagination.
“Honestly, I’ve been playing Madden with my boys, and I created a franchise and I created my player, and I went to the [Buffalo] Bills. Throughout the season … it was snowing and I’m like, ‘I gotta get traded.’ But I picked the Bills because I like [quarterback] Tyrod [Taylor], and Sammy [Watkins] and all those great receivers. And they have nice uniforms, so I went there and I demanded a release, and then I signed with the Raiders for a three or four year deal contract for, like, $26 million and it was cool. It was me … and [receiver] Amari [Cooper] and we were dominating, we were the franchise. We’re almost to the Super Bowl, about to meet up with Tom Brady …”
Cleary, wherever Smith-Schuster winds up, he’ll be a hit with the media. Reporters love someone willing to engage in hypotheticals.
But Smith-Schuster is hopeful and confident he’ll be just as valued by a team as he will be by the media; at the very least he has his sales pitch down. Besides being familiar with adversity—Smith-Schuster worked with several head coaches in his time at USC, and battled a smattering of injuries, including one to his back in 2016 that impacted his play and final numbers—he thinks his youth is a huge advantage. He wants to play “a lot of years,” and pans to get to his second and third contracts with a fresh body. He understands the role of a backup too, he says, and knows the work it will take to start.
Smith-Schuster arrived at USC when former Trojans’ standout Nelson Agholor, drafted in the first round in 2015, was already established. But as a freshman Smith-Schuster proved he was ready for the big time, starting all 13 games and recording the second most receiving yards (724) on the team, behind only Agholor (1,313).
“As a rookie, I’m gonna be playing behind someone like [Dallas receiver] Dez Bryant,” Smith-Schuster said. “When he’s tired, I can step up and be a star player.”
Praised for his size and competitiveness—his NFL.com draft profile mentions his “alpha demeanor”—Smith-Schuster is projected as a late second-round to early third-round pick. In a draft expected to be dominated by defense for the first few rounds, Smith-Schuster has been graded behind other available receivers like Mike Williams (Clemson), Corey Davis (Western Michigan), Zay Jones (East Carolina) and John Ross (Washington), the fastest man available this year.
Smith-Schuster will be happy to be picked anywhere, of course (well, maybe not a place with a lot of snow) but say that if he had his choice, he’d love to learn from veterans players like Bryant, Atlanta’s Julio Jones or Cincinnati’s A.J. Green. And like every receiver in America, he’d enjoy catching passes from Tom Brady. But Smith-Schuster said he’s actually spent the last season corralling passes from a guy who resembles a different NFL quarterback: Trojans’ starter Sam Darnold, who is already garnering Heisman hype, is like Aaron Rodgers, Smith-Schuster says, because he’s “very mobile, very quick, improvises a lot, big and able to get out of the pocket and sling it real fast.” And so should he go to Green Bay, he’ll be ready.
In a mock draft posted April 12, ESPN NFL insider had the Browns drafting Smith-Schuster in the second round, at No. 41 overall. But in Chris Burke’s three-round mock draft on SI.com, Smith-Schuster went No. 66 overall, to San Francisco.
Surely he’d be stoked to play in front of his family. But man, that California tax.