Four years ago, Colorado’s Laviska Shenault Jr. lined up against Stanford’s Paulson Adebo. At the time, they were juniors at rival high schools in Texas; Shenault played for DeSoto and Adebo for Mansfield. Now, the two will meet for the first time since 2015 when Stanford (4-4, 3-3 Pac-12) travels to face Colorado (3-6, 1-5 Pac-12) on Saturday.
Shenault followed his fast track to become the Buffaloes’ top receiving option, and Adebo, the Cardinal’s All-American junior cornerback, anchors the secondary. The future Stanford star helped his Tigers pull out a 35-21 victory at home.
As seniors, in 2016, the two schools did not meet. That was also the last year Stanford (4-4, 3-3 Pac-12) and Colorado (3-6, 1-5 Pac-12) met. So, for the first time since that 2015 meeting, the pair of future NFL draftees will square off and their respective teams will meet for just the fifth time as conference opponents.
In that 2016 season, Adebo recorded 53 tackles, seven pass breakups and three interceptions to close out his high school career. Meanwhile, Shenault’s Eagles went a perfect 16-0 on the way to the Class 6A Division II state title and the No. 2 ranking in the country by MaxPreps.
“Everyone in the secondary has to know where [Shenault] is on every play,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw. “He’s one of the best in America at what he does, and we have to recognize that.”
Last season, Shenault averaged over 100 yards per game with six touchdowns. Despite being kept, by his standards, mostly in check this season for 66.25 yards per game, Shenault has the potential to be a game wrecker on Saturday. In his last game, Adebo was given the game ball, but likely would have intercepted it anyway, given that he recorded two picks in the game. For his efforts, Adebo was named both the Jim Thorpe Award National Player of the Week and the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week.
In the 2015 matchup, however, Shenault did not even lead his team in receiving. K.D. Nixon, who came with Shenault to Colorado, hauled in two touchdowns and 102 yards, while Shenault was held to 59. In his senior season, Nixon outpaced Shenault for the entire season, with 1,148 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“They played in a fast offense, so they put up a lot of points, and it was exciting to play against them,” Adebo said. “It’s cool that we played against each other in high school and now we get to play again in college. It’ll be exciting.”
This season, with the extra attention on Shenault, the story has been similar. Tony Brown leads the Buffaloes in receiving yards (624) and touchdowns (5). Nixon, meanwhile, is third on the team with 416 yards and is tied for second with Shenault with three touchdowns.
“I think it’s going to be a great matchup of the corners we have and the receivers that they have,” Shaw said. “We’re gonna have to play really well to give ourselves a chance.”
Outside of Adebo, Stanford will rely on freshman cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly to combat the Colorado aerial attack. Kelly, who avoided the Texas high school football scene at national powerhouse Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, lost just three times throughout his high school career. Brian Kelly, his father, went to USC and led an eight-year NFL career after being drafted in the second round.
Though senior cornerback Obi Eboh entered the season with the starting job, Kelly has started the past five games. In doing so, Kelly is one of 16 Cardinal to make their first career start this season and one of 15 true freshmen to see the field.
“I just always had the mindset to work hard and just take every opportunity that was given to me,” Kelly said. “It just ended up being the starting position.”
Senior safety and captain Malik Antoine, Adebo and Eboh have all been mentors for Kelly as he has made the transition from high school to Pac-12 football. At the same time, Antoine mentioned that leadership would go both ways, and Kelly would hold him accountable.
Nevertheless, the level of talent from the receivers he will face on Saturday may be more than Kelly has seen previously. In the first three games of the season, Kelly was shielded from facing the talented receiving corps of USC or UCF, who obliterated Stanford through the air on the road.
“One of our biggest bugaboos this season has been giving up big plays, in particular on the road,” Shaw said. “Hopefully getting some rest and looking at a lot of different things and coming back with a renewed energy for this four-game push, we can cut down on those big plays.
“They’ve got multiple big-play guys,” Shaw added. “To make them even more dangerous, they have an athletic quarterback that can escape the pocket, which sometimes gives them two, three, even four more seconds.”
Colorado’s signal-caller is fifth-year Steven Montez, who brings 36 starts worth of experience and a shared record for the most touchdowns in program history.
“It starts with trying to contain the quarterback, keep them in the pocket, hopefully make him throw the ball before he really wants to,” Shaw said. “And then we got to be great in coverage.”
Quarterback containment begins with the defensive line group that is currently tied for fifth in the conference in sacks. Michael Williams, a product of All Saints’ Episcopal in Texas, is one of 13 defenders to have recorded at least a partial sack this season.
“Colorado is different,” the senior defensive tackle said. “You can’t really tell where it’s going. You got to play everything honest. So I like their scheme, and I liked how their linemen move and how their coaches move the people around the ball and change up alignments.”
The defensive group with the most questions surrounding them is the inside linebackers. Before the season, the core of the 3-4 defensive scheme was one of the deepest rooms on the team, but now has been reduced to just three players: seniors Andrew Pryts and Curtis Robinson, along with fifth-year Ryan Beecher. With Robinson listed as doubtful for this week, the Cardinal will likely turn to freshmen to step in and plug holes. Against UCF, freshman Tristin Sinclair filled in for a brief moment, but no other freshman inside linebackers have seen game action.
Injuries have also depleted the quarterback room throughout the season. Senior quarterback K.J. Costello, however, returned to play Arizona on Homecoming weekend after an injury that kept him sidelined since Sept. 21. Junior Davis Mills, who filled in for Costello before going down with his own injury, has been practicing this week and will travel, hoping to dress. Sophomore Jack West, who made his first career start against UCLA, will also be available.
“The difference between how I dealt with it against Oregon, where it was obvious I was trying to figure out ways to catch a snap,” Costello said. “[Last game] it didn’t take any bandwidth up top. It wasn’t affecting me enough to affect my thought process pre-snap, my pre-snap reads, or my communication with the guys on the sideline rather than the trainer.”
Costello threw for 322 yards and three touchdowns against the Wildcats, connecting with eleven different receivers.
“I would have been more surprised if I wasn’t able to throw it effectively,” Costello said. “My mind was set on going out and playing well.”
Colorado cannot afford to lose a game and remain in contention for bowl eligibility. Stanford, meanwhile, needs to win two of its final four. The Cardinal are 25-7 under Shaw in the month of November, and are 3-1 against Colorado in his tenure, but have never faced first-year Colorado head coach Mel Tucker.
Saturday’s kickoff is scheduled for noon Pacific time, from altitude.
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.