West Virginia slotback Tavon Austin first caught my attention during the 2011 college season. Most memorably, I watched him light up LSU's dominant defense for 187 receiving yards and Clemson for 163 yards from scrimmage in the Orange Bowl. Austin could have entered the draft following that season, but he stayed for his senior year and turned in another prolific campaign.
Austin looked awesome on television. But I wanted to examine his game more closely ahead of the 2013 draft. What makes Austin great? Will his playing style translate to the next level?
I selected four of Austin's games to re-watch, charting each of his touches. One of the games was West Virginia versus Oklahoma, essentially Austin's audition to be an NFL running back. Austin handled 21 carries, shredding the Sooners for 344 yards (16.4 YPC) and two touchdowns. The stats are meaningless to me, though. I'm more concerned with Austin's traits as a football player.
Tavon Austin is a satellite player. He undresses defenders in space, utilizing outstanding vision to set up opponents before breaking them down. Austin starts, stops, and restarts on a dime. His change-of-direction ability is special and will remain so in the pros. Among NFL skill-position players, only Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, C.J. Spiller, and perhaps Jamaal Charles can match Austin's combination of foot quickness and short-area explosion. He's like a lankier, more naturally elusive Darren Sproles.
All of those traits were evident in each game I viewed. But the Oklahoma game gives college-to-pro evaluators something else to consider. Listed at a diminutive 5-foot-9 and 174 pounds, Austin ran between the tackles and fell forward to finish runs. As a slot receiver, he repeatedly executed strong downfield run blocks. Austin displayed a toughness not often associated with players who butter their bread by getting out in space. He was a legitimate workhorse against the Sooners, handling 33 combined special teams and offensive touches en route to 121 yards after contact. Austin is not a physical, after-contact-yardage player, but he is willing to mix it up and work for yards. He can run through arm tackles. Because he played so many snaps at running back, West Virginia-Oklahoma was a consummate display of Austin's toughness, vision, and absurd foot quickness in high-traffic situations behind and around the line of scrimmage.
Austin was also an efficient pass catcher. I charted 29 targets and charged him with a single drop. Austin secured 24. Three contested receptions stood out. The first came against Kansas on an underthrow from quarterback Geno Smith. Running a fly pattern from the right slot, Austin adeptly stopped his route and came back to make a leaping catch with two Jayhawk defenders in the vicinity, for a gain of 32. On fourth-and-six versus Texas, Austin again successfully leaped for an 11-yard reception with a defender draped all over him. Against Oklahoma, Austin ran a go route out of the right slot and created just enough space over the top of Sooners corner Gabe Lynn for Smith to complete a tight-window throw over Austin's shoulder, gaining 41 yards. The majority of Austin's other catches came on high-percentage screens, quick-outs, running back flat routes, and "push passes," where Smith quickly tossed to a motioning Austin coming on an end-around.
A few plays made me curious about Austin's long speed. In a dead-heat downfield sprint, Austin couldn't separate from Kansas cornerback Tyler Patmon. In a 2011 game versus LSU, Austin got pushed out of bounds from behind by allegedly speed-deficient Tyrann Mathieu after a race down the right sideline. Austin had trouble getting open versus Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro, and he only narrowly outran Iowa State safety Jacques Washington on a 75-yard score. I think Austin's forty time might register a tick slower than most expect. But I don't think it makes a big difference.
All told in the four 2012 games, I charted 86 of Austin's touches, including penalty-negated plays. He forced a whopping 59 missed tackles, doing it from myriad alignments. Austin returned punts and kicks. He played left slot and right slot, and both carried the football and ran pass patterns as a traditional tailback. Sending Austin in motion -- either to distract the defense or simply put the ball in Austin's hands with a running start -- was an integral part of coach Dana Holgorsen's offense. Austin is a jack of all trades. More importantly, he seems to have mastered all of them.
Tavon Austin is an explosive, dynamic big-play threat with versatility creative NFL offensive coordinators will covet. I expect him to be a movable-chess-piece weapon in an offense at the next level. Austin brings field position-altering return value to the table, as well.
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