Perhaps more so than any other time in league history, NFL teams are looking outside of the NFL for help. Rookie quarterbacks are being installed and assimilated easier than ever. Option football is being run - successfully. NFL teams are looking to mimic the college game, becoming more wide-open and up-tempo than ever before. As more and more teams convert to this style of play, versatile players who can line up at a multitude of positions and make plays in space will become more and more coveted.
Used in a Percy Harvin-like role as a returner, a slot receiver in the short and intermediate area, and as a runner (from both the slot and traditional running back positions), Tavon Austin has proven to be one of the most electrifying players in the country with the ball in his hands. A devastating weapon in open space, NFL teams will drool at the possibilities he can bring as a multi-threat offensive player - especially for a team that utilities him creatively. As noted by SmartFootball.com's Chris Brown, WVU coach Dana Holgorsen offsets his team's offensive line liabilities by designing packaged concepts: easy ways to get their playmakers the ball in space while easing the burden on the offensive line.
Here we have a play to put the inside linebackers in a bind. The offensive line and running back all set to run a screen. Austin will release inside and look to set up a block on a linebacker (which he does regularly and willingly on screens). If the linebackers read the offensive line and running back and flow to the screen, Austin can will cut across the middle of the field into the void.
The Xs and Os did their job, and the play design got Austin the ball in a huge void. The magic of Tavon Austin, though, is what occurs once the ball is in his hands. He showcases his amazing stop/start ability twice - the first time as he explodes upfield after the catch, gaining 15 yards before defenders can even approach him. Once the pursuit catches up, Austin sets the outside defender up with a stutter step, bounces outside and catches a block, and gets another 15 yards before finally getting pushed out of bounds.
WVU used creative ways to get Tavon the ball in space early in the season (their "Touch Pass" variation of the Jet Sweep is being copied everywhere), Austin rose to national prominence in a nationally televised game against Oklahoma - where he totaled 572 all purpose yards - running routes and making catches down the field, and taking snaps at running back and carrying a heavier rushing workload.
Outside wide receiver J.D. Woods runs a Mini-Curl/Snag route, while Austin turns a Flat route upfield into a wheel route. Oklahoma's corners are very physical with receivers throughout the route, and Austin fights for hand position down the field. He tracks the ball perfectly over his shoulder and catches the ball in stride and through contact. Instead of just getting Austin to the ground, the corner thinks he can overpower the small receiver and just take the ball from him. Instead of going down at around the 37 yard line, Austin shrugs off the strip attempt and picks up another 15 yards before the safety can catch up in pursuit and push him out of bounds.
Arguably the most impressive part of Austin's performance against Oklahoma (and over the last few games of the season) was the work he did at running back. Listed at 5'9" and 175 lbs, he shows a surprising amount of patience, even as an inside runner. Here, WVU has Austin lined up at running back in a Pistol set, and they've called your run of the mill Stretch play (or Outside Zone). All of the offensive linemen will reach to the playside, with uncovered linemen combo-blocking up to the linebacker (and the backside tackle going up to the second level and leaving the end alone for bootleg/zone-read purposes). As the play sets up, he has a few different options, as the linebacker (highlighted in blue) is scraping over into the designed hole. He can try to out-athlete the defense, bouncing the run outside and hoping the defense loses contain (highlighted in red). This is a common route for many college players, especially undersized athletes used to playing in wide open spaces. His second option (yellow path) is to run the play exactly as designed, and hope his offensive tackle makes a successful second level block on the scraping linebacker. His third option (green arrow) is one that takes a little more sophistication, vision, and patience to pull off - pressing the hole vertically, getting the scraping linebacker to pursue to the designed gap, and then hitting the cutback lane between the center and backside guard. He weaves his way through traffic on the second level, before finally being brought down by the safety and corner 15 yards downfield.
WVU Head Coach Dana Holgorsen has gone to great lengths to showcase Austin in a similar way as he showcased Austin's evolutionary predecessor, Wes Welker (Holgorsen was Welker's wide receiver coach at Texas Tech). In the past, NFL teams viewed the slot wide receiver as an afterthought. Welker himself was neither invited to the scouting combine nor was he drafted. But the NFL's offensive renaissance has given new life to the undersized, multi-dimensional weapon, and it stands to figure that Austin will be one of the most highly coveted wide receivers in the NFL Draft.
Check back later this week for Eric's evaluation of WVU's top deep threat and redzone target, junior wide receiver Stedman Bailey, who recently declared for the draft.