In the midst of a go-route during a 7-on-7 drill before his senior year of high school, Laviska Shenault noticed out of the corner of his eye that he was rapidly approaching a set of bleachers resting on the sidelines, just outside of the white lines of the field.
“I’m just running and, as the ball gets closer and closer, I realize the bench is right there,” he said.
A crash was inevitable, but Shenault put his forearm up to block his face just in time. He was left with a cut under his eye, a nasty scar that still remains on his right forearm and the wind knocked out of him.
“I barely blocked myself in the right way,” Colorado’s star receiver said recently in recalling that scary moment. “I’ve got a lot of scars and some of the scars could have ended my career.”
Shenault also has scars on his leg and chest and he has spent this offseason recovering from toe and shoulder surgeries. No, the best football player CU has had in years is not invincible, but he is determined and he hasn’t been fazed by anything that’s left its permanent mark on his body.
“Yeah, I’m a soldier,” he said. “I’m never nervous, regardless of what I’m doing. I go out thinking I’m about to just be me. I don’t think about getting hurt. You think about getting hurt, you get hurt.”
Shenault got hurt last year – the toe and shoulder injuries cut a sensational season short and impacted CU’s overall campaign – but with fall camp set to begin Aug. 1, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound “freak,” as he’s referred to by teammates and coaches, is ready to roll.
“Everything happens for a reason, so what happened last year, it was meant to happen,” said Shenault, who played in only nine games, but caught 86 passes for 1,011 yards and six touchdowns, while also running for five scores. “It was meant to make me stronger, I guess, so I’m going to come back stronger.”
First-year CU head coach Mel Tucker hasn’t had the luxury of seeing Shenault in action yet. While in uniform this spring, Shenault was limited because of his injury rehabilitation, but Tucker knows talent and realizes his junior receiver is special.
“I’ve seen his game tape and I’ve seen what he can do and so I can see why there’s publications that would project him as a first-round (NFL draft) pick and an early pick, because of his combination of height, weight and speed,” Tucker said. “On top of all of that, he’s a high-character kid. He’s a good kid, he’s a good teammate, he’s a guy you want to coach and you want that guy on your team.”
When fall camp begins, Tucker and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson will finally be able to incorporate Shenault into the offense, giving CU one of the most dangerous weapons in college football.
“I think anybody would be excited to have Viska out there, just because of what he can do, what he’s shown that he can do,” Tucker said. “He’s done it; it’s not just potential. He’s put it on tape.”
What Shenault has put on tape still amazes even those who see him every day. It wasn’t just the numbers from last year that are impressive, but how he got to those numbers, using his strength and speed to toss defenders aside or run past them.
Shenault’s first eye-popping moments came in the 2018 season opener against Colorado State, when he caught 11 passes for 211 yards. The highlight came with the Buffs facing third-and-14 from their 11-yard line. Quarterback Steven Montez fired a pass to a wide-open Shenault seven yards down field. Shenault juked one defender, tossed aside another and sprinted 89 yards for a touchdown.
“You just watch those plays and you’re like, ‘Man, what a talent we have here,’” Montez said. “Sometimes it’s just ridiculous some of the plays he makes and some of the catches he makes. He’s such a special player.”
Just as impressive as the plays on the field are what Shenault does in the weight room. He’s one of the strongest players, regardless of position, on the team, and he proved that again during a recent workout. At the end of the workout, which included some 30 repetitions of power cleans – Shenault did a 405-pound front squat.
“Doing 405 pounds on a front squat? That’s insane,” Montez said as he described what his teammate had done that morning. “And this was after a workout. It blows my mind. He’s just gifted. Just immensely gifted, and he can only get better.”
Shenault agrees. Last year he was special, but he’s hardly maxed out his potential.
“I’m definitely proud of myself because I know where I started from and I know how much work I put into it,” he said. “I’m blessed to be in the position I’m in. But, that’s one season, so I have to come back and be stronger and faster and better. I’m definitely working on that.
“I’m focused on me getting better, day by day. I am excited for the season because I’m going to be me, but I do have something to prove.”
Part of Shenault’s development is his increasing comfort with the spotlight. During his first two years with the Buffs, he didn’t say much and when he did talk to the media, he often had extroverted friend and fellow star receiver KD Nixon next to him. Nixon did most of the talking.
Shenault’s performance during the first six games of last season, however, put him in the conversation for the Heisman Trophy and drew the attention of ESPN and other national media outlets.
Although injuries ended those Heisman hopes, Shenault is no longer a secret. He’s being tabbed as a preseason all-American and early first-round 2020 NFL draft pick by several publications and he’s fulfilling a lot more media obligations than ever before. Later this month, he will represent CU – along with linebacker Nate Landman and Tucker – at Pac-12 media day in Hollywood, Calif.
“I’m getting way better with it,” he said of conducting interviews. “Definitely getting more comfortable and I’m realizing I need to get more comfortable and I need to work on it. I feel like I’m getting better and better every time I do more. I enjoy the attention, for sure. I’m just blessed to be able to get the attention I’m getting.”
Enjoying it and getting caught up in it are different, though. Tucker doesn’t worry about the hype having a negative impact on Shenault.
“I don’t think he was raised like that,” Tucker said. “You can talk to his mom for five minutes and understand that ain’t going to happen.”
Nevertheless, Shenault is well aware of what is potentially ahead of him. He knows his NFL potential and admitted that, despite being a junior, this is likely his last year with the Buffs.
“I’m pretty sure I will want to leave (after this season), especially if I have the season that I want to have,” he said. “That’s the dream and if I can do it, it will solve a lot of problems.”
Shenault, however, has intense focus on this season because he’s never lost sight of the path to achieving his dream. He also sees great potential in the Buffs, despite coming off back-to-back 5-7 seasons and the near unanimous projections of them finishing last in the Pac-12 South division.
“This team is reminding me of my senior season in high school,” Shenault said of his DeSoto (Tex.) High School team that, led by him and Nixon, went 16-0 and won a state championship. “Everybody is developing that dog mindset. Everybody is developing and understanding we have to have a team bond. A team bond wins games, I believe.”
Having a healthy Shenault helps, too.
If he’s healthy, he said, “I can be great. I can be legendary.”
He’s not there yet, though, and he knows it.
“I’m blessed, but let’s keep it pushing,” he said. “Still have a lot of work to do.”