New WR Coach Expecting Bounce Back Year From JuJu Smith-Schuster

Noah Strackbein

PITTSBURGH -- JuJu Smith-Schuster returned to training camp after his worst statistical NFL season. The third-year veteran played 12 games last year and caught 42 passes for 552 yards and three touchdowns. 

It was a drop-off from his previous seasons where he nearly broke 1,000 yards his rookie year and caught for 1,426 yards in 2018. 

Newly hired wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard has spent the virtual offseason working with his receiving group, including Smith-Schuster. 

The former NFL veteran and Washington receivers coach knows the ups and downs of a professional career, which leaves him with little concern for Smith-Schuster's bounce back.

"I was fortunate enough to play 12 years and I had eight surgeries," Hilliard told media last week. "JuJu and I have talked, JuJu understands. At the end of the day, it is our job as players and coaches to perform and he understands that. He is going to be great this year, he is going to do everything in his power to stay healthy, number one. Outside of availability being your best ability, the rest of the stuff will take care of itself. We all know JuJu is a playmaker. We all know that he is going to be a guy we get the ball to jumpstart our offense in a big way. And he is looking forward to being JuJu."

Like the rest of the team, Hilliard is waiting to see what the next phase of the offseason brings for his team. Players haven't worked with coaches since last season, and are preparing to take the field for the second phase of the NFL's ramp-up period.

"I've been doing a lot of talking and I think they are tired of me talking and ready to get on the grass now," Hilliard said. "We are looking forward to doing that so we can start working together and kind of building a plan of attack, per se. It really is just detailing the offense."

As for being a rock to lean on for Smith-Schuster, the new coach accepts that leadership with a young group of receivers starts with himself.

"It's my job to help these young men the way prepare that they are supposed to prepare, to teach them how to be pros," said Hilliard. "That's no disrespect to anyone who has been here before me, but that's what I've been asked to do. And, I intend to do that. I'm going to lead by example, lead them through the way I teach, how I prepare, how I prepare them, what we do every day from a fundamental standpoint and how we see the big picture on a snap-by-snap basis. Those leaders usually emerge throughout competition, throughout their work. At some point, that will take care of itself outside of me."

But overall, he isn't worried about an off season that contained injuries and backup quarterbacks. His group is young, but Hilliard sees big years for each of his core players in 2020.

"As far as each of those guys are concerned in a year, JuJu [Smith-Schuster], hopefully, he's going to bounce back this year from his injuries from last year, and he looks great," he said. "He's worked incredibly hard, so we are looking forward to having JuJu for a healthy 16-plus. Diontae [Johnson] needs to continue to grow, put detail in his work and mature, things of that nature. I can go down the list from those two guys to Ryan Switzer and Chase Claypool, all the guys in the room. I think everyone will be pleased if I can get the most out of these players and everyone involved including you guys, including everyone in the building can see continuous growth."

Noah Strackbein is a Publisher with AllSteelers. Follow Noah on Twitter @NoahStrack, and AllSteelers @si_steelers.

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