By Aaron Wilson, The Baltimore Sun
8:42 PM EST, February 22, 2013
Almost casually last November, the dynamic former Dunbar standout repeatedly made the Sooners' safeties and linebackers fall to the ground with a series of body-twisting cuts.
Primarily lining up at running back, Austin piled up 572 all-purpose yards against Oklahoma for the second-highest single-game total in NCAA history. He rushed for 344 yards and two touchdowns, caught four passes for 82 yards and gained 146 yards on eight kick returns.
It was another example of why NFL teams are enamored with Austin, a projected first-round draft pick who's often compared to Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin.
When asked Friday at the NFL scouting combine if he's the best multi-dimensional prospect available, Austin issued a reply quick enough to rival his trademark speed.
"I think so," Austin said. "I think I'm the all-around best player in the draft. A lot of teams are looking for that type of player to do multiple things on the field, and I think I'm that guy."
Austin finished his collegiate career with 288 catches for 3,413 yards and 29 touchdowns. Plus, he rushed for 1,033 yards and six touchdowns.
Now, Austin is emerging as a hot name on NFL teams' draft boards.
"Tavon Austin is lightning-quick," Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said. "I watched him on tape again and again, and his ability to create mismatches, especially in the slot, is amazing. You get him isolated against a safety or a linebacker and it's over.
"Some of the things I saw reminded me of Percy Harvin coming out of Florida. He's a mismatch player. If you draft a player like that, you put the ball in his hands and let him do things in space because he's so explosive. He's fun to watch."
Before Austin arrived at West Virginia, he was leading the Poets to three consecutive Class 1A state titles while rewriting the Maryland state prep record book. Austin set records for total yards (9,258), rushing yards (7,962), touchdowns (123) and points (790).
As a senior, Austin rushed for 2,660 yards and 34 touchdowns before converting to wide receiver with the Mountaineers.
"He's a very explosive football player," Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said. "It's amazing. What he does from a return standpoint, what he did from a receivers standpoint, what he did in that Oklahoma game from a running back standpoint, he's a pretty unique football player."
Among the NFL teams Austin has been linked to in various mock drafts: the hometown Ravens, the New England Patriots, Vikings, Detroit Lions, St. Louis Rams and Denver Broncos.
"I've seen a couple of mock drafts that have me going to the Baltimore Ravens, and I think that would be a blessing," Austin said. "I would like to go anywhere that calls my name. I grew up as a Ravens fan, and I liked the Patriots, too. Baltimore is definitely still home. It's always going to be home for me."
Why the Patriots?
Austin emulates shifty Patriots slot wide receiver Wes Welker.
"That's my No. 1 guy," Austin said. "I watch a lot of tape of him. I think I'm a little quicker and faster than him. I figure if he can do it, I can do it too."
Austin's game is built around his speed and moves.
Another facet of Austin's skill set, though, is how he sets up his blocks by anticipating defenders' pursuit angles to remain a step ahead.
"Just my vision and my quickness, that's one thing that I use," Austin said. "Since I'm not two inches taller, I have to use what I've got."
Since arriving at the combine, Austin has measured in at 5-foot-8, 174 pounds.
That's definitely smaller than ideal for a wide receiver, but Austin hasn't experienced issues with injuries at the college level or in high school.
"No, it definitely shouldn't be a problem," Austin said of his size, adding that he can bench press 225 pounds 15 times. "I haven't missed a game in eight years so I think my durability should be pretty good.
"I don't really get tired of [hearing he's too small]. I just take it, put it on my back. I've been a little guy my whole life. I'm a little guy, but I play big. I'd like to be two inches taller, but it just ain't happening."
Austin has been preparing for the draft for the past few months with noted speed coach Tom Shaw in Orlando, Fla., where he says he's recently run the 40-yard dash as fast as 4.29 seconds. He's hoping to run anything under 4.4 seconds at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday when wide receivers are scheduled to be timed.
When asked if he's the fastest player in the draft, Austin said: "If we all lined up and raced, I think I'd come out on top."
Austin finished with five career special-teams touchdowns, leading the nation in yards per scrimmage as a junior and ranking second last season.
He averaged 223.9 total yard per game last season, generating at least one offensive play of 35 yards or longer 10 times.
"Tavon, to me, is a guy who you have to think about late in the first round," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. "He's a true playmaker. The only thing that works against him is his size, but this is a football player. I saw that in high school. He was kind of a man among boys there.
"At West Virginia, he didn't miss a beat there: incredibly fast, incredibly explosive. He's a touchdown waiting to happen. If you need a slot receiver, if you need a return man, if you need a guy who's going to change that scoreboard, he would be the kind of guy to look at."
Last season, Austin caught 114 passes for 1,289 yards and a dozen touchdowns last season. He also rushed for 643 yards and three touchdowns.
No game was more impressive than what Austin did against Oklahoma.
"It was more exciting than anything," Austin said. "It was a big game against Oklahoma and it kind of reminded me of my high school days. I give all the love to my linemen and the coaches believing in me. That was the first game I played running back the whole year and I'm glad with how it went."
Months ahead of the draft, the respect level for Austin is already extending into the professional level.
Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith got to know Austin during the recruiting process when the Maryland Terrapins attempted to get him to accept a scholarship offer to make the short journey from Baltimore to College Park.
"Tavon's a beast, man," Smith said. "For him to make it out of Baltimore and be the kind of person and player he is, you love to see that. He has that chip on his shoulder. He's always been confident.
"It's something you respect. He has Baltimore all over him. when he's out on the field. He's special to watch, and I'm very happy for him."
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