Having turned 20 only a few months ago, JuJu Smith-Schuster is the youngest prospect at the NFL scouting combine. That doesn’t fluster him. The former USC receiver has happily toted his belongings in an Elmo backpack this week.
“I had a Minions backpack, the version that kind of talks, like, ‘Ba-na-na, dabba-doup,’ something like that,” he explained. “It lights up. It was pretty dope, though. Then, I switched over to Elmo.”
A potential first-round pick, Smith-Schuster said he’ll be ready to handle the adult-sized responsibility of stepping into a pro offense and making an instant impact.
“When teams ask me what I’m best at, obviously I say football IQ,” he said. “I played 39 games, started 38 games. I’m tough. I played through a broken hand and didn’t miss a game. Played through a torn thumb, didn’t miss a game. And just very competitive. Willing to work. Willing to put my body out there on a line.”
Some of the biggest questions about Smith-Schuster heading into the combine concerned whether he’s fast enough to be an elite receiver. He quieted that talk Saturday by covering 40 yards in a better-than-respectable 4.54 seconds.
Of course, the loudest chatter Saturday concerned the scorching 40 run by University of Washington receiver John Ross, whose 4.22 broke the previous combine record of 4.24 run by Chris Johnson in 2008.
Johnson, an Arizona Cardinals running back, was gracious in seeing his mark eclipsed. He tweeted three sets of eyeballs before Ross ran, letting him know he’d be watching, then marveled afterward, thumbing, “He picking em up n putting em down boi.”
Smith-Schuster, who left school with a year of eligibility remaining, caught 70 passes for 914 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. He scored 10 touchdowns the year before, too, but otherwise had better numbers, with 89 catches for 1,454 yards. Many scouts say his strength and willingness to fight for the football make up for what he lacks in top-end speed and ability to separate from defenders.
“He was clearly frustrated early in the year with the way things started out,” an NFL team scout said of Smith-Schuster, referring to USC’s slow start before installing Sam Darnold at quarterback. “He’s a very competitive guy, and they were just not able to function on offense those first couple of games.
“As soon as they hit their stride, he was a totally different player. Playing with confidence and energy, finishing routes, making tough catches. Things he wasn’t doing in September. . . . There have certainly been worse players who have gone in the first round.”
In three of the last four years, a USC receiver has been among the top 50 picks. Robert Woods went in the second round to Buffalo in 2013, Jacksonville’s Marqise Lee was a second-rounder in 2014, and Nelson Agholor went to Philadelphia in the first round in 2015.
So far, Agholor has been a disappointment. Lee couldn’t stay on the field his first two seasons because of injuries, but is coming off a strong third season. The reliable Woods has averaged 50.8 catches per season in his four years.
Smith-Schuster said those players have been advising him about what to expect at the combine and in the NFL.
“Nelson Agholor talked about no matter what you’ve got to stay positive. He didn’t have his best season but he said that he kept his mind right and just keep fighting,” he said. “At the end of the day you’ve just got to keep producing. Marqise Lee told me that you’re going to go through some injuries that you’re going to have to face and you overcome that. And when he did he had a great season this past season.
“There are some guys who weren’t doing well at first that are doing well now. You learned a lot from how they started off and how they got back to where they’re at. And then off-the-field stuff: how to manage your money, how to manage your time, basically just staying out of trouble.”
Plenty of teams are in need of help at receiver, among them the Rams (who don’t have a first-round pick), Chargers, Tennessee, Baltimore, Philadelphia and others. Asked whom he talked to during his first day of team interviews, Smith-Schuster listed Tampa Bay, Chicago and Green Bay.
As for his youth, he sees it as more asset than liability.
“I got a lot of questions [about], ‘You are the youngest player, you’re immature, you’re 20 years old,’ but … I can’t change that,” he said. “I feel like I played football for a very long time through the years. I think the age is actually good. A young dude who’s willing to work.”
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer