Somewhat lost in West Virginia’s recent three-game slide that has seen the Mountaineers go from No. 5 in the country just a month ago after a 48-45 victory at Texas to completely out of the polls after last Saturday’s double-overtime loss to TCU has been the terrific play of senior receiver Tavon Austin.
While the rest of the team’s performance this year has been pretty much uneven, Tavon’s hasn’t.
When the Mountaineers, now 5-3, were struggling to get first downs in a blowout loss at Texas Tech, Austin was doing his best to pick up the slack with 139 all-purpose yards, including a 38-yard reception that set up West Virginia’s first touchdown.
When nothing seemed to go right against Kansas State, it was Austin who sent a brief jolt of electricity through Milan Puskar Stadium with a 100-yard kickoff return for a score before later catching a 5-yard TD pass near the end of the game.
And then last week against TCU, it was Tavon who did his best to put the team on his back by making two game-changing plays – one a 43-yard touchdown reception when he took a jet sweep pass to the near side of the field, got hemmed in along the sideline, and then reversed field to outrun the entire Horned Frog defense to the end zone, and the other, a 76-yard punt return for a touchdown with just 3:19 left that should have sealed the deal for the Mountaineers.
Austin finished the TCU game with 202 all-purpose yards – the fifth time he has managed to produce more than 200 all-purpose yards in a game this season and the 11th time for his career. Presently, Austin has a streak of 16 straight games with at least 120 all-purpose yards dating back to last year’s Bowling Green.
He’s averaging 198.6 all-purpose yards per game over that 16-game span, getting yards against everyone. Tavon had a career-high 287 all-purpose yards last year against second-ranked LSU, 271 versus a pretty good Louisville team and 280 total yards against Clemson in the Orange Bowl to conclude the season.
So far in 2012, he has had 200-yard games against Maryland (225), Baylor (286), Texas (222), Kansas State (233) and TCU (202).
“Tavon Austin is one of the best players I’ve ever seen,” said Texas coach Mack Brown following his team’s loss to the Mountaineers on Oct 6. “He affects the game every time he touches the ball. He’s a guy that we tried to stop, slow down and keep it out of his hands – and they’ve got a great game plan to get it into his hands.”
Tavon should top 6,000 all-purpose yards with his next touch this weekend against Oklahoma State, and at the rate he’s going, he’s got an outside shot of reaching 7,000 all-purpose yards before the season is done - which, if that happens, will put him in rarefied air.
Just like West Virginia’s other electrifying players – guys like Danny Buggs, Kerry Marbury and Artie Owens in the 1970s, Willie Drewery and Major Harris in the 1980s, Amos Zereoue in the 1990s, and more recently, Pat White, Steve Slaton and Noel Devine – once the ball is in Tavon’s hands everyone in the stadium moves to the edge of their seats in anticipation of what’s to come.
Austin leads the Mountaineers this year with 89 receptions, but many of those catches could be considered runs because of how close he's catching the ball to the line of scrimmage. Still, he is averaging 13.2 yards every time he touches the ball, and his career average of 14.3 yards per touch compares favorably to Danny Buggs’ 16-yards-per-touch career average.
Buggs’ 1972 season is still considered the Gold Standard for all-purpose players at WVU when he managed 1,362 total yards and 14 touchdowns on only 69 touches, averaging 19.8 yards every time he got his hands on the ball. That year, Coach Bobby Bowden used Buggs on flanker reverses, as a deep threat in the passing game and also as a punt returner. Yet Buggs’ production declined in subsequent years as teams began to focus more on him and injuries kept him out of several games.
Coach Dana Holgorsen has already put the football in Austin’s hands 122 times in eight games this season (oftentimes when defenses are keying on him) and he is on pace to get the ball close to 200 times for the year. As a matter of fact, only Austin and Toledo’s Bernard Reedy have produced a touchdown via punt return, kickoff return and reception so far this season (Austin also has three rushing touchdowns for his career). Austin has 1,615 all-purpose yards so far this season after setting the school record last year with 2,574 all-purpose yards.
For sake of comparison, Steve Slaton got the football 275 times during his All-America campaign in 2006, averaging 7.7 yards every time he touched the football. Kerry Marbury averaged 7.8 yards per touch in 1972 when he finished second in the nation in scoring with 18 touchdowns, Willie Drewery had 1,542 all-purpose yards and scored touchdowns three different ways in 1984, despite only getting the football 91 times that year, and Devine produced 1,750 all-purpose yards and 14 touchdowns on 249 touches in 2009.
What makes these guys so lethal is that all of them had that extra gear needed to take it the distance. Steve Slaton and Pat White were particularly effective because they were one-cut guys, and, with the exception of Olympic gold medalist James Jett, Kerry Marbury might still be the fastest player with the football in his hands ever to play at WVU.
Players like Major Harris, Amos Zereoue, Adrian Murrell, Darius Reynaud and Noel Devine had the shakes to get away from people, but did not possess the long-distance afterburners like the guys mentioned above.
Tavon, on the other hand, has it all - that rare blend of breakaway speed and elusiveness in the open field that makes him such a joy to watch. It’s a “Soul Train Line” every time Tavon has the ball in his hands; even his 5-yard punt returns can be a thing of beauty, especially when he does his little tap dance before stepping out of bounds right as a defender is about to whack him. Sometimes, it appears Austin's not sure what he’s going to do or where he’s going to go with the ball. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy says his coaches are still trying to figure that out, especially when teams kick the ball to him.
“There are times he’s gotten big returns and he doesn’t even go where they blocked them. He goes the other way,” said Gundy. “He’s special; in fact, he reminds me a lot of (San Francisco 49ers defensive back) Perrish Cox in his return game.”
Like all of the really good ones, Austin has his own distinctive style of running. When he’s in the open field he sometimes uses that quick leg kick before accelerating, just like Deion Sanders used to do at Florida State, or he will zig and then zag to set up his blockers much the way Reggie Bush did when he played at USC.
Some have even compared Austin to Barry Sanders because of the way he changes direction so quickly, but to me, Tavon is more of a cross between Billy “White Shoes” Johnson and Tony Dorsett when you consider his size, body type and running style. Dorsett and Johnson were right around the 5-10, 5-11 range and weighed about 180 pounds when they played in college.
Tony D had some shake, but what made him so great was that extra gear that he had to get out of trouble. Plus, Dorsett wasn’t against showboating, sometimes holding the ball above his head and doing his little high-step as far as 20 yards away from the end zone (much to the chagrin of WVU's Robin Meeley, by the way!).
White Shoes also had the pizzazz, his knee-knocking end zone dances in the pros coming years ahead of his time and emulated by all of us 40-somethings when we were kids. When Billy was in college, however, none of us had ever heard of him because he played in obscurity at Widener College in Pennsylvania.
Will Austin enjoy the same success these guys had beyond college?
Only time will tell.
But for now, I’d soak in every single play that Tavon makes and enjoy what's left of his senior season because he truly is one of the most exciting and electrifying players to ever put on a Mountaineer uniform.
Time has already revealed that.
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