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Laviska Shenault Jr. is ready to shine for Jaguars

The Buffs rookie is already making plays.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

No one has ever doubted Laviska Shenault Jr.’s talent. Not least in high school, nor college, nor the NFL.

Even as a true freshman, there was quiet outrage that Colorado wasn’t playing their best receiver. He had just 7 catches all season, but averaged 24 yards per reception, and it was obvious in practice just how special he was. Receivers with his size, speed and balance are so rare to find; even rarer when they have his mentality and toughness.

It was no surprise to see Viska break out his sophomore year. All the pre-season reports talked about the Buffs losing three senior receivers, but those doubts were immediately silenced when Shenault rampaged for 211 yards against the overmatched Colorado State secondary. Thus began his Heisman campaign, a five-game stretch in which he had 759 yards and 10 touchdowns as he virtually carried the Buffs to three different wins.

Only two things got in Shenault’s way — injuries and over-usage — and they go hand-in-hand. For one, Shenault had such Heisman hype because the Buffs ran everything through him, giving him screen after screen and using him as a power running back. They needed to to be competitive, but taking all those hits took a toll on his body, and all that usage led to a torn labrum and later a core muscle injury. He was limited to nine games in 2018, then played much of 2019 battling injuries.

That injury history was the biggest knock to Viska’s draft stock. There were also concerns about how polished he was, since the Buffs preferred to use him as a short yardage target, with rare deep routes. (Part of that was poor offensive line play, which made it difficult for Steven Montez to throw deep.) Those draft-day concerns were valid, but it hasn’t stopped Shenault from making an immediate impact on the surprisingly competitive Jacksonville Jaguars.

Despite falling to the second round of the NFL Draft, Shenault has found a team in dire need of his dynamic skill set. The Jaguars don’t have all that much in offensive talent beyond burgeoning star D.J. Chark. Their collection of receivers is a bunch of post-hype youngsters, such as Dede Westbrook and Chris Conley, all of whom should be better than they are. Even worse, they released Leonard Fournette, the fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft, and are rolling with undrafted rookie James Robinson (he’s actually pretty decent).

The Jaguars needed someone who could both serve as a secondary option next to Chark, and be a physical runner to make up for Fournette’s absence. So of course Shenault is already seeing targets and carries.

In his NFL debut, Shenault had three catches and two carries that netted 47 yards and his first professional touchdown. What was really impressive was that NFL defenders can’t really tackle him. He’s 220-lbs., absurdly strong in his lower half, and is rarely off-balance. On his first catch, six defenders (!) teamed up to tackle him but he never went down. Later, he made a catch on the sideline, was hit in the side by the flying defender, and he stayed up while the defender crashed backwards.

Shenault was even better his second game, although he didn’t score a touchdown this time out. He had five carries and three receptions, totaling 72 yards. He caught all three of his catchable targets, each one a contested ball. He has tremendous body control and his hands have never been a question. On each of his carries, he was moving forward for two or three extra yards after contact. It’s proof that he’s a power runner at the professional level, not just against Nebraska cornerbacks.

This is a very encouraging start for Shenault. The Jaguars clearly have a plan to use him in creative ways and he’s already good enough to make standout plays. They wouldn’t be giving him 15 touches per game like CU did, but watch for his role to expand as the season progresses. If you haven’t seen him in the NFL yet, the Jags play the Miami Dolphins on Thursday Night Football this week.