Unique set of skills highlight Tavon Austin at the right time

April 23, 2013|By Matt Vensel, The Baltimore Sun

Imagine the football field as a chess board, its synthetic green grass replaced with two-toned squares.

Picture wideouts as rooks rocketing up and down the edges of the board and backs as bishops slashing through a front line of pawns. Tight ends and slot receivers are knights, slipping out to seize smaller chunks of ground. The quarterback, of course, is king, often times stationary but absolutely invaluable.

Where does Tavon Austin fit into the NFL's weekly high-speed, hard-hitting chess matches? Creative coaches and front office decision-makers have been trying to figure that out for months.

Is the Dunbar product and former West Virginia star simply a slot receiver or an undersized deep threat? Or is Austin a rare queen chess piece capable of attacking from all over the board?

"The issue for him is going to be how teams view him," Greg Cosell of NFL Films said. "I think the teams that view him conventionally as a slot receiver are being short-sighted. The teams that see him as the ultimate chess piece that can be moved all around and aligned everywhere on the formation are the teams that will get it right. Personally, I think he's a top-10 talent in this draft."

At least one team may feel the same way Thursday night, when the NFL holds the first round of the 2013 NFL draft in New York City. And if Austin isn't a top-10 draft pick, he is considered a lock to go in the first round, long before the Ravens are on the clock.

Austin is quick to admit being a first-round pick probably wouldn't have been the case a few years ago, when NFL teams wouldn't have coveted a 5-foot-8, 174-pound receiver who did most of his damage out the slot, no matter how slippery he was in the open field.

But as wide-open offensive schemes from the college ranks continue to infiltrate the minds of NFL coaches, Austin, who set Maryland state prep records in career rushing yards (7,962) and career touchdowns (123) while at Dunbar, is this draft's most intriguing offensive weapon.

"Four, five years ago, I probably wouldn't be getting all the attention I'm getting right now," Austin said in a phone interview last Friday. "I probably wouldn't even be going to the league because of the types of offense they ran back then. But it looks like it changed just in time for me, so I'm just going to take advantage of it."

A unique path

Austin became one of the most productive receivers in college football after coach Dana Holgorsen brought his Air Raid offense, a wide-open spread passing attack, to West Virginia in 2011.

His senior season was his finest. His 114 receptions in 13 games were tied with teammate Stedman Bailey for second in Div. I-FBS behind Southern California's Marqise Lee. Austin had 1,289 receiving yards with 12 touchdowns in 2012 and also rushed for 643 yards and three more touchdowns.

Now Austin will enter an NFL that is more ready for a unique athlete like him than it has ever been.

Instead of slamming a back between the tackles 30 times a game, NFL offenses have evolved, adopting the philosophies of offenses that short-circuited collegiate scoreboards.

Versatile playmakers such as Seattle's Percy Harvin (formerly of Minnesota) and New Orleans' Darren Sproles are moved all over the field to create mismatches. Dual-threat quarterbacks like Washington's Robert Griffin III and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick are befuddling defenses in read-option offenses. New England lists Aaron Hernandez as a tight end, but he serves as a do-it-all Swiss Army knife.

"You're talking about taking a player and lining him up in many different spots as opposed to one or two," Cosell said. "Years ago, people pretty much would say that a guy is an X receiver or a guy is a Z receiver or a guy is a slot receiver, or if you're a tight end, you line up here. Everything was more static or defined. I think what we're seeing in the NFL — not everyone is there yet and maybe only a few teams are — is the fact that teams are being more creative without how they align their personnel to create matchups that favor them. [Austin is] the perfect player for that philosophy."

At West Virginia, Austin did a lot of his damage as an inside receiver, which is why he is compared to star NFL slot receivers such as Harvin and Denver's Wes Welker. He often shook free when linebackers and safeties tried to cover him, but he was more than just a slot guy.

He flashed the outside speed to beat NFL defenses deep, drawing comparisons to undersized wide receivers such as Carolina's Steve Smith and Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson. He produced big plays in the return game. And he averaged 9.5 yards per carry in his college career — nearly a yard more than Detroit's Reggie Bush averaged in his standout junior season at USC.

In his four years at West Virginia, Austin scored 40 total touchdowns as a receiver, rusher or returner.

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