A tailback in waiting at West Virginia, Austin stays patient

Former Dunbar star enjoying his role as receiver and kick returner

September 16, 2010|By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

From the moment he stepped onto the West Virginia campus last fall, Tavon Austin knew the timetable.

The former Dunbar star, who had scored 123 touchdowns for the Poets during a high school career in which he set four state records, understood that he would have to be patient to get a chance to play tailback for the Mountaineers.

Just as Noel Devine had to wait for Steve Slaton to leave, Austin has to wait for Devine to finish his college career in Morgantown, W.Va.

"You have a blueprint to show him," said West Virginia receivers coach Lonnie Galloway, who recruited Austin. "The 5-9 kid, the 5-8 kid, this is what we've done with kids this size. Come here and this is what we want to do with you. Noel was one of the reasons Tavon came here. Noel welcomed Tavon, he knew what kind of talent Tavon was. We told Tavon, 'Be a part of this family and you can help us in so many ways.'"

Not that Austin wasn't momentarily frustrated.

"When I first got here, I used to say, 'I'm playing good, but I can't even get on the field,'" Austin recalled earlier this week after a practice in preparation for Saturday's game against Maryland (2-0). "The coaches would tell me, 'You're a good player, but even good players on this team have to wait their turn.' After that, that's what I did."

Barring an injury to Devine, a senior, Austin will likely continue in his role as a starting slot receiver and kick returner for the rest of the season. Austin has nearly as many catches (a team-high 14 for 175 yards) in West Virginia's first two games -- a rout of Coastal Carolina and a come-from-way-behind overtime win at Marshall -- as he did all of last season (15 for 151 yards).

What Austin is also waiting for this season is a chance to break a long touchdown return, as he did as a freshman with a 98-yard highlight-reel runback against Connecticut, or grab a long touchdown catch like the 58-yarder he had against East Carolina last year .

Just as he is with the eventual move to tailback, Austin is remaining patient for that big play to develop.

"I don't think it's frustrating, but I always want to break a big one," Austin said. "I know if it don't happen, it will happen eventually."

But Austin knows that the Terps, some of whom are familiar with Austin from high school, will likely play him the same way at Mountaineer Field as West Virginia's first two opponents. Though neither Coastal Carolina nor Marshall could afford to double-team him consistently because of Jock Sanders, both teams made sure to keep Austin in front of them.

"Last year, nobody really knew me," said Austin, who was used mostly as a backup receiver and kick returner last season. "Now I think since I've hit the scene and did a little bit more, other teams are saying I'm one of the guys they have to stop. "

Maryland players are well aware of how dangerous Austin can be if he gets some open space.

"He's one of those guys in the open field with the football where he really has the ability to make a lot of plays," said Maryland safety Antwine Perez. "With the football in has hands, we have to be very physical with him."

West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said this week that he didn't plan on changing the way he uses Austin since he doesn't believe defenses have completely figured it out.

"If they have, we haven't seen it," Stewart said at his weekly news conference."He's a threat every time he touches the ball."

Said Galloway, "We have to make sure that our three best athletes are on the field at the same time -- Jock, Noel and Tavon."

Austin said that he chose West Virginia over North Carolina, Michigan and Maryland, where Ralph Friedgen once dropped in on a Dunbar game by helicopter, because he had a "warm feeling" when he visited Morgantown. Its location proved to be as perfect a fit for Austin as the team's offense.

"I wanted to go away from home," he said, "but not too far from home."

West Virginia coaches told Austin that he would likely have to start his career as a wide receiver, a position Austin knows he will probably play if he winds up in the NFL.

"Just watching him through his high school career and then getting him over here, I knew and we knew as a staff that he could play receiver," Galloway said.

"We had to find ways to get him the ball -- hand him the ball, throw him a little screen. He's a complete football player. Most running backs don't run good routes, they don't have good ball skills. He's a dynamic athlete."

Austin, who set state records for touchdowns, career points (790), total offensive yards (9,258) and rushing yards (7,962), admits that "running back will always be my love, but playing wide receiver is a way for me to showcase my talent."

Because of his size, the 5-9, 173-pound Austin tends to watch NFL slot receivers such as the two Steve Smiths and DeSean Jackson as well as kick returners such as Dexter McCluster.

Dunbar coach Lawrence Smith said that Austin has been motivated by those back home who said he would be too small to play tailback in college.

"Without a shadow of a doubt, he uses that as motivation every day to show people what he could do on this level," Smith said.

Said Austin, "I've proved everybody wrong who said I had a 1.9 [grade-point average], my personality wasn't good, I'm this and I'm that." Galloway said that Austin has been one of his most coachable players and has done well in the classroom, making the athletic director's Honor Roll for getting at least a 3.0 during his fall semester last year.

The timetable for the move to tailback remains in place. Stewart said that Austin would be his running back after Devine leaves.

"He will be in the backfield carrying the ball as our tailback," Stewart said." End of story. It's my decision and that is already etched in stone."

don.markus@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Barker contributed to this article.

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