MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – A couple of months ago, West Virginia coach Bill Stewart was adamant that Tavon Austin was going to return to running back once Noel Devine graduated. Now he’s not so sure.
Asked after Friday’s Pitt game if he had any second thoughts about returning Austin to the backfield, Stewart smiled and nodded as the question was being asked.
“He’s too valuable out there as a water bug,” Stewart said. “Then you can bring him in motion and give him the ball on reverses. I’m telling you, the one the guy got him with his towel or whatever he had a hold of on that last run, he is out. I saw it and I thought six because they can’t catch him when he hits that seam.
“That’s the stuff we need to do with him,” Stewart continued. “We need a big back. That’s how I cut my teeth years ago and unless you have a Patrick White or a (Cam) Newton kind of kid who runs, runs, runs … the bigger backs I’m starting to like more and just keep Tavon out there where he is.”
Austin has absolutely no problem with that. In fact, he went to assistant coach Lonnie Galloway and told him to put in a word on his behalf that he wanted to remain at wide receiver.
“I went to him and I said, ‘Coach Galloway what are you going to do next year?’ He was like, ‘I don’t know Tavon, you might not have a choice.’ I was like, ‘Coach I really like wide receiver now.’ Then he came back to me and told me I might have a chance of staying at wide receiver,” Austin said.
In reality, considering his slight build, slot receiver is a natural position for him. West Virginia has had great success in the past turning high school running backs into productive wide receivers. Three that immediately come to mind are Willie Drewrey, Rahsaan Vanterpool, and more recently, Darius Reynaud.
Of the three, Austin more closely resembles Drewrey in the way he can separate from defenders and turn short gains into touchdowns. Despite his size, Drewrey played nine NFL seasons with two different organizations.
“I look at a lot of receivers my size that are in the league and I know there are not too many 175-pound running backs so I’ve got to fit in and wide receiver is probably the best position,” Austin explained.
Plus, he knows 20-25 hits per game at running back can take its toll on the body. All he has to do is look across the locker room and see his buddy Noel Devine covered in ice bags.
“Nobody likes getting hit,” he admitted. “I’m a small back and I try to make people miss so hopefully I can make a big play.”
Austin has made plenty of those this year - his 71-yard third quarter touchdown reception at Pitt last Friday breaking open a tight football game. Austin added another big TD late in the third quarter to turn the game into a blowout.
The first touchdown showed his outstanding speed; the second one displayed his tremendous athletic ability.
“The first one was like in a bunch situation,” Austin said. “The cornerback was playing outside so I slipped him, Geno threw a good pass, I made the catch and just ran in for the touchdown. The other one, I ran a stick route, the defensive back had his back to Geno and he couldn’t see the ball, so I just jumped over his back and made the play.”
When was the last time you saw a quarterback throw jump balls to a 5-foot-9-inch receiver? That’s a good indication of how athletic Austin is.
“Geno is coached to do that,” said Tavon. “If the defensive back has his back turned Geno knows that a lot of us can jump up there and get it so he trusts me and I trusted him and I just made a play.”
Austin’s 2010 season is very similar to Reynaud’s in 2007 when he led the Mountaineers with 64 catches for 733 yards and 12 touchdowns. Reynaud finished the year with 83 total touches for 1,047 yards.
Austin, with two games remaining, shows 47 catches for 636 yards and seven touchdowns. When you throw in his rushes and kickoff returns, Austin now has 923 total yards on 70 touches.
Still, some believe Austin should have the rock in his hands even more frequently. Austin says his current ratio is about right.
“I know at the end of the day everybody will have their chance and if you call for the ball and you do nothing then everybody is going to look at you like you wanted it, but if you’re patient and something happens, then everything is good,” said Austin.
Everything has been good for Austin, particularly last Friday at Pitt.Backyard Brawl Notebook …
- West Virginians, trained to dislike South Florida after watching USF take it to the Mountaineers in 2006, 2007 and 2009, will become huge Bulls fans this weekend. South Florida is coming off what folks in Tampa are calling “the first signature win of the Skip Holtz era” after yesterday’s overtime victory over Miami that cost Hurricane coach Randy Shannon his job.
A USF win, coupled with a West Virginia victory over Rutgers, would give the Mountaineers the Big East’s BCS bowl spot, likely the Fiesta Bowl. The team that ends up on the short end of the stick will likely drop all the way down to the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte because the Champs Sports Bowl will probably pick Notre Dame, a come-from-behind winner at USC last night.
If that happens, look for that to be added to the list of discussion points when the league seriously gets down to the business of conference expansion.
- Connecticut coach Randy Edsall has already issued a moratorium on all BCS talk from his Husky players this week.
- West Virginia returns to the rankings this week: 23rd in the AP poll and 24th in the coaches’ poll. UConn, which has the inside track on the Big East’s BCS bowl berth, did not earn a single vote in this week’s coaches’ poll. UConn did get 16 votes in the AP poll to rank 29th this week.
- Geno Smith’s 22 touchdown passes are now the second most in school history. Marc Bulger owns the school record with 31 TD passes thrown in 1998.
- As far as I can tell, the Big East has two notable wins outside of league play this year – USF’s victory over Miami yesterday and West Virginia’s two-touchdown triumph over Maryland in Morgantown on Sept. 18.
Which one is better?
Well, Miami is now 7-5 and is looking for a new coach while Maryland knocked NC State out of the ACC title game picture yesterday and finished the regular season with an 8-4 record. The Terps are likely headed to a nice bowl game this season.
- West Virginia’s game plan going into Friday’s Backyard Brawl was to attack Pitt cornerback Antwaun Reed, flagged for four penalties the previous week at South Florida.
"In the meeting room all week Coach Galloway was telling us that Pitt’s cornerbacks play tough and when we are running down the field their hands are going to be on us so get their hands off of us or make a good play at the line,” said Austin.
It was Reed who Austin burned for the 71-yard touchdown that opened the game up for the Mountaineers in the third quarter, much like Phil Braxton’s 79-yard third quarter TD catch gave the Mountaineers much needed separation in a 24-17 win at Heinz Field in 2002.
- During my drive back to Morgantown after Friday’s game, I had an opportunity to listen to Pittsburgh sports talk radio really take it to Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt. On Pitt’s flagship station, 93.7 The Fan, the producer actually played audio clips of Pitt’s four turnovers to the theme from the Benny Hill Show.
Later, a West Virginia caller finally got through and told the show’s listeners that Pitt should give Wannstedt a lifetime contract. The host, who spent the prior 20 minutes tearing down Wannstedt’s college and professional coaching credentials, lost his composure, discarded his Wannstedt talking points, and immediately started ripping into the West Virginia caller, bringing up the Mountaineers’ loss to Syracuse earlier this season and the Steve Slaton jersey that he was undoubtedly wearing (all during the morning leading up to the Backyard Brawl there were frequent reminders of Scott McKillop’s third-down tackle of Slaton that preserved Pitt’s 2007 upset victory over West Virginia).
Speaking of those four turnovers, all of them were the result of West Virginia’s defense and not from lackadaisical play by Pitt. Running back Dion Lewis and Ray Graham do not have a history of fumbling the football.
- The most gratifying aspect of West Virginia’s victory over Pitt was the physical aspect of the Mountaineers’ performance. WVU insiders have conceded that the last three times these two teams played, Pitt was the more physical team and controlled the line of scrimmage. Not so on Friday.
- According to Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Kevin Gorman, Dave Wannstedt’s post-game press conference lasted less than four minutes, which has to set some kind of a record. My favorite Backyard Brawl post-game transcript came following a 1967 West Virginia victory in Morgantown (all 15 points scored on Ken Juskowich field goals) when Pitt coach Dave Hart called his team’s performance “a complete humiliation.”
The Panther offense could muster just two first downs that day.
- There are still tickets remaining for West Virginia’s regular season home finale against Rutgers this Saturday at noon. Fans that purchase four tickets for Saturday's game can receive a voucher for $25 worth of concession items. You can purchase tickets online at http://www.wvugame.com