JuJu Smith-Schuster Settling into Superstardom


USC’s wide receiver legacy is impressive. JuJu Smith-Schuster made it abundantly clear in his freshman season he had the goods to write his name alongside former Trojans like Keyshawn Johnson, Mike Williams, Dwayne Jarrett, Robert Woods, Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor.

But the comparisons Smith-Schuster elicits early into his sophomore season go beyond the other standouts who previously wore cardinal and gold.

“Being a receiver coach most of my life and studying all kinds of receiver, I think he looks just like Anquan Boldin,” Idaho head coach Paul Petrino said. “Big, strong, physical.”

Boldin’s a former NFL Rookie of the Year and boasts a career resume similar to Pro Football Hall of Famers Art Monk and Fred Biletnikoff, so that’s high praise indeed.

Speaking of Biletnikoff, JuJu Smith-Schuster has quickly set a pace for the award named for whom college football’s top wide receiver. Smith-Schuster has 14 catches for 281 yards with three touchdowns just two games into the 2015 season.

Stanford head coach summarized it best, saying Smith-Schuster’s “future is extremely bright.”

Bright as the days ahead of him might be, JuJu Smith-Schuster is glimmering in the present. He seamlessly took over in the No. 1 receiver role former teammate Agholor manned so expertly in 2014. Agholor caught 104 passes for 1,313 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, serving as the pillar on whom quarterback Cody Kessler leaned.

When Kessler was breaking USC records and building the Heisman candidacy he has going now, Agholor was right there. Against Colorado? Six catches for 128 yards and three touchdowns. Cal? Sixteen receptions, 216 yards. Notre Dame? Twelve receptions for 120 yards.

In last year’s receiving corps, JuJu Smith-Schuster was the Robin to Agholor’s Batman — or, using Smith-Schuster’s backpack for this season as inspiration, the Minion to Agholor’s Gru — going for 54 receptions and 724 yards.

Smith-Schuster credit his transition into being that go-to-guy for Kessler directly to Agholor when I asked him about it in the spring.

“I looked up to [the departed 2014 wide receivers], especially Nelson,” he said. “He’s the guy I always talked to about what I needed to work on.”

The sophomore reaching out to his elder for advice paid obvious dividends. Smith-Schuster is flourishing in all facets of his game, operating as a possession receiver, a deep threat, and even a reliable blocker.

USC head coach Steve Sarkisian praised Smith-Schuster’s blocking for his fellow receivers, particularly on screens that last week proved integral to setting up the long ball.

“There were some plays when they were playing Cover-4 press, and they were playing down,” he said following Saturday’s rout of Idaho. “Majority of the time, they were playing off. That’s how I was able to rack up the majority of my yards: Nine-yard stop routes, then go from there.

“Then, we were just waiting for [the deep opportunity] to come,” he continued. “When that play’s called, it’s time to execute.”

Of any criticism lobbed at the USC offense a season ago, the most repeated was probably Sarkisian’s perhaps conservative use of deep passes. With JuJu Smith-Schuster keying a deeper all-around corps, expect to see more such play calls in 2015.

How often the Trojans can go long in Week 3, however, is a serious question mark. The Stanford defense is always one of, if not the stingiest in the Pac-12. Last year against the Cardinal, Smith-Schuster had his worst statistical game in his college career: one reception for -2 yards.

As last year’s No. 1, Agholor was targeted for nine receptions and 91 yards. Smith-Schuster may not see quite such a hefty workload, given the Trojans are so much deeper at wide-out this season, and have more than two scholarship running backs available. But the threat of JuJu Smith-Schuster going off means opportunities for the rest of the USC offense.