“When I do something, I feel the pain. But it’s pain, it’s just pain, that’s all it is.”
While that was wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr.’s answer to the media after their 16-13 win over the Stanford Cardinal in November, it’s been his credo since July 17, 2009.
It was on this day that his father, Laviska, lost his life. As the family was returning from a pool party, Laviska Jr.’s mother, Annie Shenault, pulled onto the shoulder so that her husband could drive. It was at this time that Laviska Sr., who was sporting sandals, stumbled into traffic and was tragically killed with the entire family looking on, including 10-year-old Laviska Jr., who witnessed the incident from the front passenger seat.
From that point on, Shenault Jr. internalized most of his emotions, but to those who knew him, his strength would be evident. From that moment, ‘Viska’, began to grow out his hair because in the bible, one’s hair is a symbol of one’s strength.
But as his hair grew longer, an increasing number of obstacles were thrown at the teenager.
Three years after the passing of his father, his mother was diagnosed with the West Nile Virus and forced out of work. As the bills from the untimely death of their patriarch piled up, and no steady income, the Shenault family had to scrape by.
The family relied on a lot of people in their community to help them make ends meet, but fate once again made an appearance. The dreads had grown so long that they impacted Viska’s athletic career. As Shenault entered high school, he was a better basketball player than football player, but the Desoto High School coach had a strict hair policy — hair couldn’t extend beyond the shoulders. So without hesitation, Shenault gave up playing basketball and committed himself to the weight room in his free time. That silly rule was a blessing in disguise because, just like what his dreads stood for, Viska’s commitment to the weight room became the foundation for his game on the field.
Over the years, Shenault’s physical strength began to catch up with his mental strength. The ‘late bloomer’ began lifting with the offensive linemen instead of the receivers because he was lifting so much more than his position group, it simply took too much time in between sets to swap the weights out. While his Colorado teammates refer to him as a ‘freak,’ Shenault believes that he more closely resembles the Incredible Hulk or Dr. Strange because “Incredible Hulk’s extra strong, can barely be stopped, and Dr. Strange can pretty much do anything.” These two characters encapsulate what he is going to bring to the team that drafts him. He can literally do it all. He is a weapon; a positionless player who may carry the title of receiver, but a guy that can do whatever you want him to.
One of Shenault’s finer traits is his ability to track the football. He does a great job of tracing the trajectory of the ball from the moment it leaves the quarterback’s hand. He continually adjusts to the throw’s intended destination, and he has shown the ability to catch any type of pass away from his frame. That’s a testament to his hand-eye coordination, hand strength and finger dexterity, which was refined during his basketball days. Even though he may be fully extended at the catch point, he has the wherewithal to quickly tuck the ball so that he can then create after the catch or prepare for contact with the turf.
Shenault has grown over the years, and one thing that is apparent is that he’s an alpha. When the ball is in the air, it’s his. It doesn’t matter if the trajectory is off, it doesn’t matter that the pass is inaccurate, if it’s in the air, then he is going to attack it.
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Shenault is able to cover up a quarterback’s inaccuracy with his God-given talent. At times, the ball may be thrown to the improper shoulder, behind him or away from his body, but he’s still able to change direction and use his body or hand-eye coordination to bring the ball in. Receivers often need to work through contact, and Shenault has shown that he can do just that. He may be knocked off-balance briefly, but he immediately gets back onto his route stem and gets his eyes on his QB. Aside from his hand strength, he has amazing reactive quickness in his hands.
Shenault’s play speed is some of the best in class, and it puts him one move ahead of defenders. This is of tremendous importance when he needs to go up and get the ball in traffic. You can see him checking safety rotations prior to the ball arriving and even processing the angles defenders are taking to the ball so that he can set up his next move.
His understanding of where the big hits are coming from, paired with his thick, 6-foot-2, 220-pound frame, allows him to bounce off defenders and find green. Below, you’ll see him run a simple 5-yard in route, throttle in the window, catch the ball with his hands and know exactly what his next move is. He’s either bracing for impact and spinning out into the open field against Air Force, or he’s hitting the turbo button for an easy house-call against USC. It’s this type of spatial awareness and physical prowess that allowed him to convert a first down or touchdown on 56% of his total touches over the course of his career.
Shenault has “big, thick legs. He’s so strong,” stated his former offensive coordinator, Darrin Chiaverini. “He’s different with the way he can run through people. He’s got this power when he needs it, but then he’s running away from guys when he gets free.”
When the ball is in Shenault’s hands, he pretty much becomes a running back. He has very good lean, knows how to make guys miss in a phone booth, has the burst to eliminate defenders’ angles, and the leg drive to consistently break tackles. Strictly as a receiver, Viska broke 24 tackles in his three years at Colorado and racked up 519 yards after contact. His 319 yards after contact in 2018, his best statistical season, was the fourth-most in the nation, ahead of Deebo Samuel and N’Keal Harry.
In 2019, Viska was brought down by a solo tackler only 14 times in 70 touches. That kind of tackle-breaking ability is why the staff used him in several positions, including taking direct snaps in wildcat looks and toting the rock on jet sweeps.
“You have to have three different plans to make sure there’s no mismatch,” his former head coach Mel Tucker said about how he is a nightmare for opposing coaches.
Teams are forced to practice how to defend a weapon like Shenault, and a lot of busts occur because players don’t have a lot of “time on task” to defend it properly.
Per SportsInfo Solutions, Viska carried the rock 20 times for 159 yards and four touchdowns on 3rd- or 4th-and-1-3 yard situations over the course of his career.
Shenault thrived in these pressure-cooker situations: “I like [Wildcat] the most because the coaches are putting their trust in me.”
And he doesn’t let the staff down. He converted 90% of those situations because he has the speed, vision, balance, strength and physicality. Once he gets to top speed, no one wants to be on the receiving end of that collision.
This style of play doesn’t come without a price. Shenault has dealt with several injuries over the years, missing three games of his sophomore year with shoulder and toe problems and two games this year with a core muscle injury. This playmaker has never been what scouts call a “100 percenter.” He doesn’t have to be 100% in order to ball out because his toughness goes a long way. He’s not the kind of guy that will sit out a half because of an ankle sprain or bruised thigh. His physical and mental toughness have been tested; they’ve proven to be elite and likely will get him drafted late day one or early day two of the 2020 NFL Draft.
#NFLDraft Injury Impact: Laviska Shenault, WR, Colorado. Does his injury history drop Shenault from the first round? @BangedUpBills evaluates.#GoBuffs https://t.co/Lj9i8eceEy pic.twitter.com/Klyx9AatWa— Cover 1 (@Cover1) February 3, 2020
But don’t take my word for it. Just take a look at Laviska Shenault Jr.’s physical attributes, including how his dreads are now long enough to cover the nameplate of his jersey.
It’s clear he’s dealt with pain his entire life, and that’s not going to stop him from being great. “I can’t quit now, there’s no point in quitting,” Shenault told Colorado media, “so I’m going to give it my all, any chance, any way possible.”