Jaylon Johnson vs. Laviska Shenault Jr. — the battle that will decide Utah's fate

Ryan Kostecka

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL/GAME BREAKDOWN

Key Matchup: Utah DB Jaylon Johnson vs. Colorado WR Laviska Shenault Jr.

This could easily be one of the best matchups the Pac-12 has to offer with Johnson serving as one of the best defensive backs in the conference and Shenault taking home the same honor as a wide receiver.

For Colorado, it’s extremely simple — if you want to win you have to get the ball to Shenault and let him do what he does. Terrifyingly dangerous whenever he has the ball in his hands, Shenault will line up from the outside, to the slot, to running back and even quarterback in the
‘wildcat’ formation.

“He is tremendous after the catch. … He is explosive after the catch, basically like a running back,” said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. “He could probably play running back because that is how talented he is. That is what really stands out about him, is his run after catch ability. He is very dangerous.”

On the season, Shenault has 52 catches for 721 yards and four scores, an average of 13.9 yards per catch. He's also added 136 rushing yards on 18 carries and two scores. He's battled injuries for most of the season, but last year is where he made his mark when he caught 86 passes for 1,011 yards and five scores.

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Nov 9, 2019; Boulder, CO, USA; Colorado Buffaloes wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. (2) celebrates after his successful fourth down carry against the Stanford Cardinal during the fourth quarter at Folsom Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

But for how dangerous Shenault is, and how he’s dominated Pac-12 competition the past 2.5 season, Utah feels as if it has the perfect answer in limiting his success; Johnson.

Johnson is Utah’s leader in the secondary, and one of the best on-ball defensive backs the Utes have had in a decade. Gifted with size (6-foot) and strength (195-lbs), Johnson has made tremendous strides this season despite being named to the all-Pac-12 first-team last season.

He has shown much more willingness to come and help in the run game, showing the skills and physicality to make open field tackles on running backs or wide receivers. His pass skills are excellent, as evidenced by his two interceptions and nine passes defended — the reason his stats aren’t better is because opposing quarterbacks have rarely thrown his way this season.

“Shut-down corner, that term gets thrown around pretty loosely, there's not very many of them. … He is one of them,” Whittingham said of Johnson. “So that allows you to do so many things in coverage, roll the coverage away from him, man him up. Just so many options when you have a guy like that. So, yeah, it's a huge advantage."

That’s why the Johnson-Shenault battle will be one for the ages.

Shenault is a tough matchup for any defensive back, checking in at 6-foot-2, 220-lbs, so he not only has the elusive skills that Whittingham was talking about, he has the strength to break through tackles.

“Once he catches the ball, he’s explosive,” Johnson said of Shenault. “He can turn short plays into long plays, just being able to stretch the plays and just being a dynamic playmaker.”

Hence why Johnson’s improved physicality and tackling is huge for this battle. If he can limit Shenault on the open field, or at least limit his effectiveness, Utah should blow out the Buffaloes. But if Johnson lays an egg in what is expected to be his final game at Rice-Eccles, his lasting memory of the stadium could be a bad one.

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Oct 12, 2019; Corvallis, OR, USA; Oregon State Beavers wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins (17) is tackled on a pass play by Utah Utes defensive back Jaylon Johnson (1) during the first half at Reser Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

“At this point, it is just my job at this point to go out and shut whoever their best guy is down,” Johnson said. “It’s nothing new for this week, just go out there and whoever they put me on, I plan to lock up.”

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