Tavon Austin continues to use his small frame to make big plays

The Dunbar grad will lead West Virginia this weekend against Maryland

September 19, 2012|Kevin Cowherd

If you tune in Saturday to watch Maryland play No. 8 West Virginia, do yourself a favor: Keep your eyes on the Mountaineers' Tavon Austin, the Baltimore kid who wears No. 1 and might be the most exciting player in the whole country.

It's hard to believe he's a senior already, a slot receiver with the same Smurfs body-type he had during a legendary high school career at Dunbar.

The Mountaineers list him at 5-foot-9 and 171 pounds, and that looks generous. But he's still the classic little man in a big man's game. He's still a burner with three or four different gears when he catches the ball. And he still has the kind of ankle-breaking moves that make defensive coordinators pound their fists through chalkboards.

What's the old line? He could make tacklers miss in a phone booth? Yes, that's it exactly. If anyone still remembers what a phone booth looked like.

"A lot of people say small guys can't get it done," Austin said over the phone from Morgantown, W.V. "But at the end of the day, it depends on how big your heart is. ... If you can play, you can play."

Oh, Tavon Austin can play, all right.

All he did at Dunbar was rush for a state record 7,962 yards and 123 touchdowns, leading the Poets to three state championships while being named Baltimore Sun Male Athlete of the Year his senior year. He was a running back then, and trying to contain him was like trying to chase ghosts. He simply wore out opposing defenses.

I saw him in the Dunbar-Digital Harbor game his senior year and by halftime, he'd racked up over 100 yards rushing, scored two touchdowns on runs of 33 and 27 yards and seemed to have barely broken a sweat.

The Digital Harbor players, on the other hand, all had that thousand-yard stare. For them it was time to go home. Dunbar eventually won 54-6. Tavon Austin was just too much.

He's been too much for a lot of teams at West Virginia, too. Hoping to keep his slight frame out of the orthopedist's office, the Mountaineers turned him into an inside receiver his freshman year, which didn't exactly thrill him.

But the move has paid huge dividends. Last year was his break-out season, as he finished with 101 catches for 1,186 yards and eight touchdowns while leading the nation in all-purpose yardage with 198 per game.

He caught 12 passes — four for touchdowns — in West Virginia's 70-33 rout of Clemson in the Orange Bowl and was named to the All-Big East first team as a wide receiver and return specialist. And after 11 catches for 113 yards in the Mountaineers' 42-12 rout of James Madison last week, he seems on the top of his game.

Maryland better find a way to stop him Saturday or it'll be a long afternoon at 60,000-seat Milan Puskar Stadium, which gets ear-bleeding loud when the Mountaineers are sticking it to the other team.

In West Virginia's 37-31 win over the Terps last year at Byrd Stadium, Austin caught 11 passes for 122 yards. And just like last season, the Mountaineers seem willing to tear up the playbook to get the ball in his hands as much as possible.

"What they do," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said this week, "is they utilize Tavon Austin as a running back, putting him in motion and getting him the ball on handoffs, getting him the ball on swing passes and underneath."

Austin said he's been busy all week trying to scrounge up 20 tickets for friends and family members coming down to the game from Baltimore.

But when you ask if he feels any additional excitement facing Maryland, the team that wanted him so badly four years ago that Ralph Friedgen would have chewed his arm off for a shot at the kid, Austin is silent for a moment.

"Not really," he said at last. "I kind of approach every game the same. At the end of the day, it's another game."

As for the future, Austin acknowledged that he wants to play in the NFL next year.

You don't rush your senior season in college, not when you're a player as good as he is and there are whispers of an outside shot at the Heisman Trophy. Instead, you try to savor every moment and make it last. This is a violent game. Who knows how many snaps you get before a career ends?

But there are days when Austin can't help think of how far he's come, how he proved the doubters wrong at Dunbar and West Virginia as a little guy, and how he can prove them wrong at the next level, too.

There are other Smurfs in the NFL, he says. And if you're fast enough and tough enough and you can play, well, who knows how far you can go?

"The league is changing," he said. "There are a lot more small receivers now. I could see myself maybe in a slot like Wes Welker."

But that's still down the road. This week, all he sees is Maryland on the schedule. Another chance for a little guy to prove he can play this game.



Listen to Kevin Cowherd at 7:20 a.m. Tuesdays on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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