Reading the Tea Leaves
By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.co
April 12, 2010
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Tavon Austin could certainly read the tea leaves. He figured out right away that the quickest path to playing time was going to be doing something totally foreign to him.
Last year when he arrived at WVU, Austin was presented two alternatives – play running back and watch Noel Devine for two years or move to wide receiver and play alongside Devine. So being the type of guy who doesn’t like to stand around and watch things happen, Austin decided he might as well learn a new position.
“I want to be on the field with those guys,” Austin said.
Austin had a record-setting career as a running back at Dunbar High in Baltimore where he was twice named the state’s offensive player of the year. He ran for 2,660 yards and scored 34 touchdowns as a senior and accumulated more than 9,000 yards of offense during his prep career.
Running back is Tavon’s natural position, but the move to wide receiver is beneficial in many ways.
One, he is not the biggest guy in the world (listed at 5-9, 173 pounds) and a couple of years in a structured strength program will give him enough time to get his body ready to absorb the constant pounding it will take at running back.
Two, the coaching staff was able to convince Austin that the idea of moving to wide receiver would get the team’s three best playmakers (Devine, Jock Sanders and Austin) on the field at the same time.
And to make things even more enticing to Austin, the name Steve Smith was tossed out there.
You know Steve Smith, the Carolina Panthers receiver who caught more than 100 passes a few years ago and is one of the most explosive players in the NFL - that Steve Smith. Austin and Smith are roughly the same size.
“I did my research and you’ve got Steve Smith,” Austin pointed out.
You will be hard pressed to come up with another school in the Big East with this many explosive playmakers on the field at the same time. Devine proved last year that he is not only durable (started all 13 games and had 241 carries) but that he can also get into the end zone (14 total touchdowns).
Sanders is within range of breaking most of the school’s receiving records and has crossed the goal line 15 times in 39 games as both a runner and as a pass catcher.
And Austin caught 15 passes, returned 17 kicks and ran the football six times, scoring three different ways for the Mountaineers in 2009 as a true freshman. His TD catch against East Carolina was a back breaker for the Pirates and his kickoff return to begin the Connecticut game turned out to be the deciding score for West Virginia in its 28-24 victory.
All three can get into the end zone in different ways and that is why having Austin on the field at wide receiver with Devine in the backfield and Sanders in the slot is so appealing to the coaching staff.
“The only thing that can hold us back is ourselves,” Austin admitted. “If we don’t go out and execute what we have to do it’s on ourselves.”
In order to fit Austin into the game plan, there may be times when he will line up at outside receiver. That may seem odd when you think about typical outside receivers such as Terrell Owens, Randy Moss and Chad Ochocinco, but there is a method to the madness: the further away you get Austin from the rest of the congestion on the field the better the chance of him taking one to the house.
“I was looking at it like, ‘I don’t know about being on the outside as a receiver.’ At the same time, I just talked to some of the players and they told me what to do and from there I’ve just been doing it,” Austin shrugged.
Austin is by no means a finished product. He still has plenty of work to do in the passing game because the position is so new to him - but he is making great progress.
“Now I know how to run certain routes that in high school I had no idea. I know how to run the dig and I know how to run all of the routes the coaches have taught me,” Austin said.
It is also to Austin’s advantage to get the ball out in space on crossing routes and in the seams where he is on the move. That will put even more pressure on the defense to get him to the ground. Otherwise, it could be six points for the Mountaineers.
“When I’m out there I can get into an open space and hopefully I can take it the distance,” he said.
Despite his inevitable return to running back when Devine graduates, Austin will benefit greatly from the time spent at wide receiver because it will require him to work on his ball skills - something that he will need at his size anyway if he entertains any thoughts of playing at the next level.
“I’m thankful that they are letting me do that,” Austin said. “I get to play kick return and hopefully I get punt return. Moving to wide receiver shows people that I can catch the ball and run the ball.”
Offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen said before the start of spring practice that he thought West Virginia’s offense at times last year was “too sideways.” He wants to put more pressure on defenses vertically and explosive players such as Austin, Devine and Sanders should be able to do that.
“They don’t know where we will hit them from,” Austin explained. “We can hit them from the back field, from the slot or out at wide receiver now. Hopefully it just all works out.”
Hopefully it does.
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