In a receiver room loaded with talent, Montana Lemonious-Craig wasn’t among the projected stars this year, but he kept showing up and making plays during Colorado’s practices in the spring.
“He’s growing into being, I call it like a ‘comfort piece’ for the quarterback,” head coach Karl Dorrell said in April.
In the season opener Friday, Lemonious-Craig translated his offseason production to game day. A second-year freshman, Lemonious-Craig caught two passes for 23 yards, including the first touchdown of his career, in the Buffs’ 35-7 win against Northern Colorado.
“I would say it felt pretty good,” he said. “Hard work is paying off, but that is just fuel to the fire. I want more. Because at the end of the day, complacency can get you beat.”
As the Buffs (1-0) prepare to face No. 5 Texas A&M (1-0) on Saturday at Empower Field at Mile High (1:30 p.m., TV: Fox), Lemonious-Craig is one of many who could play a key role in the game.
To this point, Lemonious-Craig doesn’t have the experience or production to match Dimitri Stanley or La’Vontae Shenault. He doesn’t have the flash (or production) to match fellow freshman Brenden Rice, either. He’s not as experienced as Daniel Arias or Jaylon Jackson. He is, however, proving his value, not only as a receiver but as a blocker.
“We’re always competing within each other, so we’re always pushing each other,” Lemonious-Craig said. “I think everybody is a weapon in the receiver room. We all want to see each other win, we all want everybody to eat. So it’s a great environment, great atmosphere. (Offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini) is doing a great job. Everybody’s rotating and playing, so it’s a good vibe.”
The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Lemonious-Craig, from Inglewood, Calif., is earning a spot in the rotation because of his all-around ability.
In addition to his two catches, he executed several key blocks in the win against UNC, including one downfield that helped running back Ashaad Clayton gain 35 yards on a fourth-quarter run.
“(The coaches) instill that in our game,” he said. “We’ve got to be physical. We can’t come off the line being scared. You’ve got to be able to know what you’re doing, know your assignment, your alignment. And I mean, blocking is a part of being a wide receiver. That’s how the big runs really happen. They get to the second level and if you can block downfield and stay on your block, you have more of a chance at scoring instead of them being tracked down by somebody.”
During his six seasons coaching CU’s receivers, Chiaverini has stressed the importance of blocking, and Lemonious-Craig has taken it to heart. He was on the field for 18 running plays against UNC and, according to Pro Football Focus, graded out as CU’s best run blocker — regardless of position.
“I just know when I have the assignment to go out there and make a block, that’s my job,” he said. “As long as I’m taking care of my business, handling business while I’m on the field, eventually it’ll keep coming.”
His opportunities as a receiver will also keep coming if he continues producing. Last year, he and freshman quarterback Brendon Lewis were roommates and developed a close relationship. That’s helped them to be on the same page on the field, and it wasn’t a surprise to see them connect for a touchdown against the Bears.
“It felt good getting Montana his first catch, his first collegiate touchdown, so that was really cool,” Lewis said after the game.
On the play, Lewis scrambled to his right and found Lemonious-Craig in the end zone for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
“Just knowing B-Lew, he’s a mobile guy; no play is really ever dead,” Lemonious-Craig said. “Once I saw him start rolling, I took off to that back end zone. Cutting across the safety gave me the open window to get to the sideline. I made sure I got two (feet) in instead of one.”
When he got to the locker room after the game, Lemonious-Craig found several messages on his phone.
“It was blowing up because it’s my first one,” he said. “But there’s many more to come.”
More are likely to come because Lemonious-Craig is becoming a reliable target. But, he said he’s simply doing his job.
“As a wide receiver you’re supposed to catch the ball,” he said. “Make the routines routine and make the hard ones look routine. That’s really what I go by in terms of just making plays and catching the ball.”