Exclusive Interview: JuJu Smith-Schuster & Zach Banner discuss Steelers training camp, team expectations

As the end of Summer approaches, the start of September starts off with a bang as Joe Kuzma sits down for an exclusive interview with Juju Smith-Schuster and Zach Banner as each had a chat on the changes during this unusual offseason, talk about training camp and the Steelers outlook for the upcoming season.

In the shadow of Heinz Field, two young men entering their fourth season in the National Football League prepare for a year that’s been unlike any other. Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and offensive tackle Zach Banner both eager to get the regular season underway.

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The first noticeable chance this preseason, says Smith-Schuster, is an absence of fans while practicing in the stadium:

With us it’s totally different. It’s like our own little bubble. Our weight room is half inside half outside. Our meetings are in the [suites] so that’s a lot different.

What’s also weird too when we have team meetings, half of us do virtual, the other half, the vets are in person. Any week, any day, it can switch where the vets are virtual and the rookies and young guys are in person.

Zach Banner adds:

The one dynamic piece [JuJu] briefly went over is that’s deep is the absence of the fans. The hardest thing to do is to literally run out of a tunnel in a stadium that holds over 60,000 and only limited access to reporters.

A big thing we’re feeling about it is the dynamic and absence of the fans. It comes from a deeper understanding that they give energy as well as we entertain them. That sort of dynamic being absent is definitely well noticed on my end for sure.

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Each player had high praise for Ben Roethlisberger’s return and the energy he brings to the team. JuJu has been catching passes from Big Ben for the last four offseasons:

It’s really cool to see that he’s out there and more hungry than ever. His leadership and everything is coming together. It makes everyone’s job easier. We move as one.

Zach Banner shared similar sentiments:

His leadership is definitely felt. He’s very very motivated. You can see it. I feed off of it and I think the rest of our team does as well.

JuJu Smith-Schuster discusses the addition of wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard next. The new position coach takes over after a year which saw the passing of well-respected receivers coach Darryl Drake who gave the young pass catcher some of his best advice as a pro:

Never choose good when great’s available.

That quote, however, doesn’t just apply to football, as Smith-Schuster notes it can be applied toward everything from education to being a great father. The impact of the quote is emphasized in Smith-Schuster referring to him as “Coach Drake”, while speaking about Hilliard’s presence:

Ike’s a good dude. One thing he brought to our receiving room is his experience. With his skills and technique it’s helped us out tremendously. I’m being more physical with my hands and upper body, just taking little guys and throwing them.

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Zach Banner feels the offensive line is excited about this year’s offensive line play. Last year, they had issues with injuries, suspensions and thus, consistency. However, the “gang” has some cohesiveness and is up to the task of blocking for James Conner as well as protecting Ben Roethlisberger:

We know upfront what we can do. We had some issues last year, but we did them as a front five or six. I’m excited to see what we can do as unit to move the ball and getting Ben some opportunities to get the ball to guys amazing guys like JuJu, [Diontae Johnson], and James [Washington].

JuJu inserts Chase Claypool into that group as a rookie who has stood out to him, since he’s around him all of the time. “He’s damn-near built to be an NFL receiver.” He’s also seen Anthony McFarland go “Zero to one hundred” very fast. The speed coming out of the background is another added element to the Steelers offense, while the defense added Alex Highsmith in the third round of this year’s draft.

Being opposite of Banner in drills sometimes, Highsmith comes to mind for the offensive tackle as he had great things to say about his character and approach to the game.

If anyone would know, it would be Banner, who continues to be listed on various rosters around the Internet at a whopping 360 lbs., but is a much slimmer 335 lbs. this offseason.

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All of this is in preparation for a season that has been threatened by the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. The empty stadium is strange, but JuJu is prepared to entertain fans watching, no matter where they may be watching.

Whether we have fans there or not, our Steelers fans will be with us.

Zach Banner also adds that Pepsi wanted to make sure fans will be there on game day with a special “Made For Steelers Watching Fan Zone”. The sweepstakes includes a nod to Smith-Schuster’s days of riding a bike when he arrived in Pittsburgh. Despite owning several cars these days, JuJu continues to ride as many as 30 miles on his bikes these days.

Banner was also spotted riding a bike around Pittsburgh lately, as seen on his Twitter account:

Both players are known for their fun side on social media, but it isn’t always everyone’s cup of tea.

It’s not always being serious, you know, all the time. We’re all human beings. But when the whistle’s blown, it’s time to walk in, it’s time to get in the game and dominate.

Zach Banner had a much briefer statement about what happens at kickoff:

I kill human beings on the football field.

Muttered several times, there was conviction that his slimmer frame may enable him to do just that in 2020 as he battles Chuks Okorafor for the starting right tackle position. As he prepares for whatever spot he lands with on the team he takes a Coach Mike Tomlin quote to heart: “Don’t seek comfort.”

That should come as a warning to opponents as the Steelers open their season against the New York Giants on September 14th.

In the interim, Steelers fans who are interested in joining Pepsi’s sweepstakes for an opportunity to bike ride around Heinz Field with Smith-Schuster can visit madeforsteelerswatching.com for full details.

The full audio interview is also available as part of this week’s Steel City Underground Podcast.

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