By John Antonik for WVUsports.com
April 25, 2013 12:01 AM
Tavon Austin is one of the smallest players in this year’s NFL draft. He will also be one of the most coveted.
Austin, standing just 5-feet-8 inches and weighing only 174 pounds, would have been a second or third round choice at best just a few years ago because of his size (or lack thereof), but NFL offenses are beginning to more closely resemble the college game and that is opening the door to smaller playmakers like Austin.
“Tavon fits a whole bunch of different offenses, but when you think of up-tempo offenses and the spread offenses that have infiltrated college football over the last decade, that’s the type of guy that you think about,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. “You think about a slot guy that is dynamic and you can move him around and get him the ball in a variety of ways – line him up in the backfield, motion him out of the backfield, line him up at receiver, throw it to him, and move him back into the backfield.
“That’s what college football has been about, and that’s what you see the NFL going to a little bit.”
Austin’s great versatility was never more evident than in the Oklahoma game last season when he started the game at slot receiver and then moved to tailback where he finished with a Big 12-record 575 all-purpose yards – a school-record 344 of those coming on the ground.
It remains one of the single greatest offensive performances in NCAA history against a high-quality opponent, and it also occurred with a press box full of NFL scouts on hand.
It was then that scouts, personnel directors and general managers began to realize the value Austin brings to the table. He’s not just a 5-foot-8-inch slot receiver, but rather a multi-dimensional player who can line up just about anywhere on the field and can also catch punts and kickoffs –a three-in-one type of player.
“I would love to get my hands on him,” said ESPN NFL analyst and former Super Bowl winning coach Jon Gruden. “He is going to be the story of this draft.”
In thinking of ways to utilize Austin, Holgorsen recalled his first trip to Morgantown when West Virginia athletic director and ex-NFL player Oliver Luck was showing him around the football facility.
“The first thing he did was point at a picture of Tavon Austin and he said ‘you need to get that guy the ball as much as you possibly can,’” Holgorsen said. “I knew he was a dynamic player surrounded by some guys his sophomore year prior to me getting here who took some of the touches away from him, but he was certainly not shy about wanting the ball and we were not shy about giving it to him over the course of the last two years.”
Austin led the country with an average of 198 all-purpose yards per game and was the only player in the country in 2012 to score touchdowns four different ways – by pass, run, punt return and kickoff return.
No receiver his size has ever been taken in the first round, but Austin is a rare talent who will likely be gone by the 16th pick to St. Louis if he is still available. Some have him going as high as No. 6 to Cleveland.
Once again, size is not as big of an issue for wide receivers as it once was.
“The NFL has evolved into more and more of a college look; spread the field, get the football into the playmakers’ hands, and that’s what (Austin) is,” says NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock. “He’s a mismatch. I can only imagine being a nickel (back) or a safety and having to line up across from him in a slot knowing he runs a 4.35, knowing how quick he is. He’s really a difficult matchup and that’s what this league is.”
And that is exactly the plan Dana Holgorsen had for Austin at West Virginia.
“He fits the spread offense – a dynamic playmaker type of guy who can do some return-game stuff, so it’s not surprising to me to see him climb the charts because he’s the type of kid the more you are around him, the more time you spend with him, the more you fall in love with him and want him on your football team.”
Somebody will surely fall in love with Austin Thursday night, most likely sooner rather than later.
Meanwhile, teammate Geno Smith is also expecting to go in the first round, exactly how soon and to which team is not quite clear. Across the board Smith is the No.1-rated quarterback in this year’s draft, but experts do not regard this class of quarterbacks very strong and Smith could fall because of that.
If Smith does stick in the first round as expected along with Austin, it will be the first time West Virginia has ever had two players taken in the first round. The closest it came to happening was 1990 when linebacker Renaldo Turnbull was selected 14th overall by the New Orleans Saints and wide receiver Reggie Rembert was the third pick of the second round (28th overall) by the New York Jets.
In addition to Austin and Smith, junior wide receiver Stedman Bailey is projected to go in the third or fourth rounds, while center Joe Madsen is a possibility as a sixth or seventh round pickup. Other WVU players in the mix this weekend include fullback Shawne Alston, linebacker Josh Francis, offensive lineman Jeff Braun, linebacker Terence Garvin and defensive end Jorge Wright.
Three Mountaineer players were selected last year, including first-rounder Bruce Irvin to the Seattle Seahawks. Since 2010, the last seven West Virginia players taken in the draft have been defensive players with the exception of offensive tackle Selvish Capers, picked in the seventh round by the Washington Redskins three years ago.
West Virginia’s last offensive player to go in the first round was tight end Anthony Becht (27th overall) to the New York Jets in 2000.
The Mountaineers have had nine players picked in the first round, the highest being No. 4 overall pick Dick Leftridge, taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1966.
The draft begins at 8 p.m. in New York City and the three-day event will be televised on ESPN. Round one will take place Thursday night, rounds two and three will be on Friday and the event will wrap up with rounds four through seven on Saturday.
Briefly: Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen have been invited to New York City to attend this year's draft. Stedman Bailey will also be there as a guest of Smith. The two were high school teammates.
NFL Draft 2013
West Virginia Mountaineers