Long Beach football players prepare for NFL, college seasons

Much has been made of the Long Beach prep football downfall in recent years, with a lot of top talent transferring out of the area, yet local fans will still see plenty of familiar faces during the upcoming NFL and NCAA football seasons.

There are currently 17 players with ties to Long Beach trying to make NFL rosters during training camp this month, and more than a dozen local athletes will take the field with their NCAA teams on Saturdays this fall.

Here are the Top 5 storylines for Long Beach football fans to follow:

1. JuJu Taking Over The Pittsburgh Steelers are always a top storyline in the NFL and Long Beach Poly High alum Juju Smith-Schuster is at the center of the drama this year. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound wide receiver had a breakout second season as the second Steelers receiver behind Antonio Brown and was named to his first Pro Bowl. Now, after Brown’s offseason contract dispute, his ugly words towards everyone including Smith-Schuster and his ultimate departure to Oakland, Smith-Schuster is left as the number one receiver in Pittsburgh where he’s embracing the responsibility.

“It’s an honor and a blessing to have this role,” he told Michael Irvin while catching passes during a segment on the NFL Network. “When AB was here he was getting all of the double teams and I had an opportunity to shine. Now when I get the double teams there’s a lot of young guys here who can shine.”

Smith-Schuster, who became the youngest player in NFL history to record a season with over 110 receptions for over 1,4000 yards, last season, said the biggest change so far has been his role in training camp.

“Everyone comes to me to be the vocal leader,” Smith-Schuster told Irvin. “That’s what I’ve stepped up to do. I didn’t really talk a lot last year. This year I have an opportunity to be a role model for my teammates. I’m just super excited.”

Smith-Schuster also had one of the top-selling jerseys in the NFL last season and capitalized on his popularity by adding to his list of endorsements while starting the Trojans Legends foundation for charity. So, it will be interesting to see if his success or failure on the field changes the way he goes about his business off of the field. No matter what, with the way Brown badmouthed the Pittsburgh on his way out, Steelers fans will be whipping their Terrible Towels even harder for Smith-Schuster this season.

Pittsburgh plays its next preseason game Aug. 17 against the Kansas City Chiefs.

JuJu Smith Schuster at his summer football camp.

2. Bubba And The Browns The Cleveland Browns addition of quarterback Baker Mayfield and wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. has been welcomed news for offensive guard Joel “Bubba” Bitonio. The 6-4, 315-pound Wilson High alum is headed into his sixth NFL season and is coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance.

Now, after years of being the doormat in the AFC North division, many expect the Browns to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

“You could tell all offseason that [Baker Mayfield] has put in the time,” Bitonio said on the NFL Network. “He’s always been that vocal guy, so that hasn’t been a problem, but he’s taken that next step in leadership. He’s not afraid to get on guys and he keeps the energy of practice going. It’s been fun seeing him take that next step.”

Cleveland plays its next preseason game Aug. 17 against the Indianapolis Colts.

3. More Than An Okay Corral Long Beach Poly High alum Matt Corral was supposed to be a Florida Gator but after a coaching change in Gainesville, the quarterback ended up going to Ole Miss. That feels like a serendipitous sliding of doors as Corral is ready to start for the Rebels as a redshirt freshman.

“All I’m worried about is winning games for Ole Miss,” Corral said at SEC Media Day. “I want [to be a leader] and that’s part of the reason why I came [to Ole Miss]—just being a leader and doing what you’re supposed to be doing and setting an example.”

Corral was an Army All-American in his lone season with Poly after transferring from Oaks Christian and used his superior arm strength and foot speed to rack up over 2,500 total yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior.

“Matt’s a very, very talented guy,” Ole Miss coach Matt Luke said at SEC Media Day. “He can make all of the throws. He’s got escapability in the pocket, and then all of the intangibles with the toughness that we’ve already talked about. So I think the combination of all of that made him the choice.”

Ole Miss opens the season Aug. 31 against Memphis.

4. ASU SoCal Devils The Arizona State University football program became a home for elite Poly High defenders after former Jackrabbits coach Antonio Pierce joined fellow former NFL All-Pro and ESPN personality Herm Edwards in Tempe. Poly products Jermayne Lole, Aashari Crosswell, Kobe Williams, Kejuan Markham, Keon Markham and Elijah Juarez are all on the Sun Devils defensive depth chart this season.

Last year, ASU showed improvement under its new coaching staff while going 5-1 at home with a trio of former Jackrabbits getting quality playing time. Defensive back Ashari Crosswell led the secondary with four interceptions and was tied for seventh on the team with 43 total tackles. He and fellow defensive back Williams combined for 17 pass breakups and Williams was fifth on the team with 50 tackles. Lole was fourth on the team with three sacks and five tackles for loss on the defensive line.

After playing under Pierce at Poly, the Markham twins made it clear why they’re headed to the desert this fall.

“With AP it’s more than football,” Keon said. “That’s someone we know cares about us as people, we’re excited to play for him again.”

“Everything they’re building at ASU is exciting right now, they’re really taking over Southern California and we can’t wait to be a part of it,” Kejuan said.

ASU starts its season on Aug. 29 by hosting Kent State, and the Sun Devils come back to Southern California on Oct. 26 to take on UCLA at the Rose Bowl.

5. DJacc and Ross This year could mark the true beginning and end of careers for a pair of speedy wideouts from Long Beach. Poly High alum DeSean Jackson is entering his 12th NFL season and Jordan High’s John Ross is poised for a breakout, third season.

Jackson, 32, is back with the Philadelphia Eagles where he spent the first half of his career. The 5-10, 175-pound wideout is still climbing up the all-time receiving yardage list, ranking 45th all-time with more than 10,000 yards. He told ESPN that he is quickly building a relationship with Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz.

“[Wentz] made a comment earlier to me, like, ‘I saw you make a break and you were expecting the ball. If you weren’t here during spring ball, I probably wouldn’t have been able to notice that,’” Jackson said.

The Eagles continue the preseason on Aug. 15 against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Ross, 23, has been hampered by injuries and lack of opportunity after getting drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals ninth overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. The 5-11, 194-pound speedster only played in three games during his rookie season and caught 21 passes in 13 games last season.

Ross is getting a lot of attention this year after top Bengals wideout AJ Green sustained a training camp injury that will keep him out weeks. Then again, Ross is dealing with a nagging hamstring injury of his own.

The Bengals continue the preseason on Aug. 15 against Washington.

Both Jackson and Ross trained with Gary Cablayan here in Long Beach before Ross broke the NFL Combine record with a 4.22 40-yard dash in 2017.

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Mike and JJ go together like mac and cheese: they’re best friends, business partners and Long Beach sports experts. They’ve been working together for over a decade covering Long Beach local sports and now run the562.org, a community-funded nonprofit media outlet.