Meet the Colorado WR Who Has the NFL Drooling: 'He's Julio Jones, Only Bigger'

Matt Hayes@matthayescfbSenior National College Football WriterSeptember 19, 2019

B/R

BOULDER, Colo. — He has never seen anyone like him.

Never. Anyone. It's a distinct description with zero wiggle room for a no-frills realist like Colorado head coach Mel Tucker.

"That's just not a statement you're going to hear from me," Tucker says.    

Until he met Laviska Shenault Jr. 

In 23 years as a defensive assistant or coordinator in college football and the NFL, Tucker has been around every size, shape, strength and speed possible at the wide receiver position.

Plaxico Burress and Josh Reed. Michael Jenkins and Santonio Holmes. Alshon Jeffery and Calvin Ridley. Those are but a handful of the players he has coached and doesn't include those he has coached against.

None has the complete package of Shenault.

"You could go a whole career and not coach a guy like him," Tucker says, and he can feel the skepticism, so now it gets serious.

He leans in, elbows on his knees with a steely stare that looks a whole lot like the one he gave his team an hour earlier during practice when he barked, "You'd better be comfortable with being uncomfortable, with that sense of urgency to do it right every time, or you can take your ass to the [NCAA transfer] portal right now."

"Some guys are your speed, go [route] guys," he continues now. "Some are your slants. Some are your highpoint-and-go-get-the-ball. Some are your guys that can go over the middle. Or size and strength and run-after-the-catch guys.

"This kid is everything rolled into one."

If that doesn't do it for you, maybe this will: One NFL scout tells Bleacher Report that Shenault—at 6'2", 225 pounds with a sub-4.4 40—will go in the first five picks of next year's draft.

"He's Julio Jones," the scout says. "Only bigger."

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Wait, everyone. This story is just beginning.

Seems as though Viska—everyone calls him Viska, because CU's other star wideout and Shenault's childhood best friend, K.D. Nixon, calls him Viska, and whatever K.D. says, goes—has no idea just how good he is. Really.

Earlier this spring, the NCAA held a symposium in Indianapolis to introduce NFL draft-eligible stars of the game to the realities and dangers of turning pro.

Choosing an agent, managing money, dealing with needy family and friends with their hands out. Everything that's so important yet so often overlooked by players with newfound wealth.

Shenault walked into the conference room at the NCAA symposium, and it was filled with a who's who of top college football players. Tua Tagovailoa and Jake Fromm, Grant Delpit and Chase Young. You name him, and the star was there.

So was Shenault.

"I was thinking, Is this where I am supposed to be?" Shenault says. "It kind of hit me right then. Somebody thinks I'm as good as these guys."

He grabbed a notebook and filled it with insight on everything from draft grades and eligibility to choosing an agent and financial planning.

The one thing that shocked most everyone in the room: understanding your contract. Even in the most basic form, the realities of a contract are overwhelming and understated.

If you sign for $1 million, 37 percent goes to the federal government because you've gone from the lowest to the highest tax bracket. Another 5 percent ($50,000) goes to your agent. That leaves you with less than $600,000, and that's before you pay back your agent or financial planner who probably fronted you money needed for the pre-draft process (a car to get around, clothes to interview in, training for the combine).

That can bring the number, conservatively, down as low as $350,000 for your first contract, and as Shenault says, "You haven't even bought your mother a home."

Shoot, that's one of the reasons he's playing this game in the first place. His mom lost her husband, his dad, when Shenault was 10, and Annie Brown Shenault has spent 10 years sacrificing without Laviska Sr. and raising a family on her own (including Laviska Jr.'s younger brother, CU freshman wideout La'Vontae).

"His dad always told him, 'Do your best and stay out of trouble,'" Annie says. "Him playing is like him telling his dad, 'I'm doing what you told me to do.'"

But it hasn't been easy. He didn't play football until the ninth grade, and when he did at legendary DeSoto High School in suburban Dallas-Fort Worth, he played tight end until his senior season.

He was lost at a position that has been minimized in most college offenses, was a 3-star recruit and was ignored by a majority of major schools. Darrin Chiaverini, then a wide receivers coach at Texas Tech, found him at DeSoto and told him he wanted to make him a wide receiver.

Chiaverini begged Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury to offer Shenault, and when Chiaverini left to become offensive coordinator at CU, his first priority was to sign Shenault.

By that time, Alabama had found tape of him and had zeroed in on adding him to a freshman class that already included receivers Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III.

The very thought of Shenault at Alabama with that receiver class is frightening. Fortunately for CU, Shenault got bad vibes from his visit to Tuscaloosa—"it just didn't feel right"—and he and Nixon both signed with the Buffs.

"When he signed," Chiaverini says, "I immediately thought, 'It won't be long until he's the best player on this team.'"

BOULDER, CO - SEPTEMBER 14:  Wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. #2 of the Colorado Buffaloes celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Air Force Falcons in the first quarter of a game at Folsom Field on September 14, 2019 in Boulder, Colorado.  (Ph
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Then the first obstacle hit: Shenault didn't pick up the offense as quickly as the CU staff liked, and there were more experienced receivers in front of him. So he spent his freshman season on special teams.

"We used to come home from games and fight each other because we were so mad and knew we could help our team," Nixon says. "It was not a good time."

Shenault says he thinks he could have played right away as a freshman, and probably should have, but he didn't waste the year, embracing special teams, volunteering and playing every unit he could—and scoring his first career touchdown on his first career touch, returning a fumbled punt 55 yards.

Realizing talent alone wouldn't get him on the offense, he also studied and made sure that when he showed up for his sophomore season, his mental preparedness matched his physical. "He finally learned the offense," Chiaverini says. "Now it's second nature for him."

The result last season was an immediate impact. In the first five games, Shenault had 51 catches for 708 yards and 10 touchdowns (six receiving, four rushing), helping Colorado to a 5-0 start before missing three-and-a-half games with foot and shoulder injuries. It turned into a disappointing season for the Buffaloes from there as they lost their final seven games. But Shenault finished with an 86-reception, 1,011-yard, 11-touchdown season that got him on everyone's radar.

Days after the end of the season, Mike MacIntyre was fired and Tucker was hired. The only thing the new head coach was told about the roster was he had a "pretty good" wide receiver.

"I didn't know who [Shenault] was before I got here. I had no idea," Tucker says. "When I get here, he's in a sling and a boot recovering from surgery. Then I see him on the field for the first time in fall camp, and I'm like, Holy s--t, really? I really got one of these players my first year here, walking into the door?"

To be fair, Tucker kind of had an idea of what he was getting into with Shenault when during the summer, he was told Shenault couldn't lift weights with the receivers anymore. He had to lift with the offensive linemen.

It was taking too much time to change plates on the various stations, and not everyone was getting their reps. By working with the linemen, there wasn't as much plate-changing because he was lifting similar weight.

His best clean and jerk came during his freshman season. He did it once and cleared 315 pounds and hasn't done it again. He has squatted 455 pounds but says he can add 100 more pounds on that number with fresh legs.

"I'm telling you right now: Y'all haven't seen his best," Nixon says. "You're going to see it this year, and he's going to blow everyone away."

Early in fall camp, before Colorado began this season with back-to-back wins over bitter rivals Colorado State and Nebraska, Tucker had an odd idea. In fact, now that he's saying it out loud for the first time, it doesn't sound so odd at all.

Shenault is the fastest player on the team (and most likely one of the top five in the country). He is pound for pound, CU director of football strength and conditioning Drew Wilson insists, the strongest player on the team.

Now back to Tucker's idea.

Let's begin with the baseline that Tucker is a defensive coach, and he thinks like a defensive coach—which is to say, he wants the best athletes on that side of the ball.

"So I got to thinking, What if I put him on the outside, a rush linebacker, on defense for a few select plays and told him to go get the quarterback?" Tucker says. "I mean, he looks like an outside linebacker. Can you imagine that? People would be saying, 'What are they doing? Are they crazy?' But I'm telling you right now he'd get five or six sacks, at least. Wouldn't that be nuts?"

He's the type of player who inspires such out-of-the-box thinking.

Also the type of player who, once the word is out, is not allowed to run free in secondaries for long. Through three games this season, he's constantly been double-teamed. More creative thinking is required to get him the ball—at receiver or as a Wildcat quarterback. Shenault's tough run between the tackles last week against Air Force tied the game late before CU lost in overtime.

Midway through his breakout season last year, Shenault started getting more media requests, and at one point, CU officials had both Shenault—quiet and measured with his words—and Nixon—a lovable carnival barker—together at a podium.

Nixon, of course, carried the moment. He talked about their dreams growing up together in DFW and how they wanted to play in the NFL because playing in the NFL meant they could take care of their families.

A year later, Nixon has escaped an oddly steamy August Colorado morning and is talking about his favorite thing: his friendship with Shenault. They'll live in L.A. one day and produce movies—after they play in the NFL.

Shenault laughs and plays along. He has been given an athletic gift from God, he says.

"When your time comes, you better have put in the work to be ready for it," he says. "There's a lot of work between average and unique."

A distinct description with zero wiggle room.

It won't be the last one used in Viska's story.

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