Imagine the football field as a chess board, its synthetic green grass replaced with two-toned squares.
Picture wideouts as rooks rocketing up and down the edges of the board and backs as bishops slashing through a front line of pawns. Tight ends and slot receivers are knights, slipping out to seize smaller chunks of ground. The quarterback, of course, is king, often times stationary but absolutely invaluable.
Where does Tavon Austin fit into the NFL's weekly high-speed, hard-hitting chess matches? Creative coaches and front office decision-makers have been trying to figure that out for months.
Is the Dunbar product and former West Virginia star simply a slot receiver or an undersized deep threat? Or is Austin a rare queen chess piece capable of attacking from all over the board?
"The issue for him is going to be how teams view him," Greg Cosell of NFL Films said. "I think the teams that view him conventionally as a slot receiver are being short-sighted. The teams that see him as the ultimate chess piece that can be moved all around and aligned everywhere on the formation are the teams that will get it right. Personally, I think he's a top-10 talent in this draft."
At least one team may feel the same way Thursday night, when the NFL holds the first round of the 2013 NFL draft in New York City. And if Austin isn't a top-10 draft pick, he is considered a lock to go in the first round, long before the Ravens are on the clock.
Austin is quick to admit being a first-round pick probably wouldn't have been the case a few years ago, when NFL teams wouldn't have coveted a 5-foot-8, 174-pound receiver who did most of his damage out the slot, no matter how slippery he was in the open field.
But as wide-open offensive schemes from the college ranks continue to infiltrate the minds of NFL coaches, Austin, who set Maryland state prep records in career rushing yards (7,962) and career touchdowns (123) while at Dunbar, is this draft's most intriguing offensive weapon.
"Four, five years ago, I probably wouldn't be getting all the attention I'm getting right now," Austin said in a phone interview last Friday. "I probably wouldn't even be going to the league because of the types of offense they ran back then. But it looks like it changed just in time for me, so I'm just going to take advantage of it."
A unique path
Austin became one of the most productive receivers in college football after coach Dana Holgorsen brought his Air Raid offense, a wide-open spread passing attack, to West Virginia in 2011.
His senior season was his finest. His 114 receptions in 13 games were tied with teammate Stedman Bailey for second in Div. I-FBS behind Southern California's Marqise Lee. Austin had 1,289 receiving yards with 12 touchdowns in 2012 and also rushed for 643 yards and three more touchdowns.
Now Austin will enter an NFL that is more ready for a unique athlete like him than it has ever been.
Instead of slamming a back between the tackles 30 times a game, NFL offenses have evolved, adopting the philosophies of offenses that short-circuited collegiate scoreboards.
Versatile playmakers such as Seattle's Percy Harvin (formerly of Minnesota) and New Orleans' Darren Sproles are moved all over the field to create mismatches. Dual-threat quarterbacks like Washington's Robert Griffin III and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick are befuddling defenses in read-option offenses. New England lists Aaron Hernandez as a tight end, but he serves as a do-it-all Swiss Army knife.
"You're talking about taking a player and lining him up in many different spots as opposed to one or two," Cosell said. "Years ago, people pretty much would say that a guy is an X receiver or a guy is a Z receiver or a guy is a slot receiver, or if you're a tight end, you line up here. Everything was more static or defined. I think what we're seeing in the NFL — not everyone is there yet and maybe only a few teams are — is the fact that teams are being more creative without how they align their personnel to create matchups that favor them. [Austin is] the perfect player for that philosophy."
At West Virginia, Austin did a lot of his damage as an inside receiver, which is why he is compared to star NFL slot receivers such as Harvin and Denver's Wes Welker. He often shook free when linebackers and safeties tried to cover him, but he was more than just a slot guy.
He flashed the outside speed to beat NFL defenses deep, drawing comparisons to undersized wide receivers such as Carolina's Steve Smith and Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson. He produced big plays in the return game. And he averaged 9.5 yards per carry in his college career — nearly a yard more than Detroit's Reggie Bush averaged in his standout junior season at USC.
In his four years at West Virginia, Austin scored 40 total touchdowns as a receiver, rusher or returner.
"The way the game is evolving and changing, I think there is more of a place in the NFL for guys like him. He's got rare skill and rare explosiveness," said former Ravens scout Daniel Jeremiah, who is now an analyst for NFL Network. "You can do so many things with him. To me, he's a touchdown-maker."
Austin's most eye-popping performance came in a 50-49 loss to Oklahoma last fall. West Virginia moved him to running back and he rushed for 344 yards on 21 carries. On one of his two touchdowns, he pulled a nifty outside-in juke of Oklahoma safety Javon Harris just before gliding into the end zone.
Back in Baltimore, Lawrence Smith, who coached Austin at Dunbar, was smiling.
"I'm used to that by now," Smith said. "The stuff that he did in high school, we used to say that he disappeared. And then he reappeared."
ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr., who lives in Maryland and watched Austin play at Dunbar, agrees that he is an "electrifying, dynamic player" and predicts he will "have a heck of a career" in the NFL.
"In the era we're in in the NFL, his skill set transitions and translates tremendously well," Kiper said. "Now, 20 years ago it might have been a different ballgame."
More to prove
But as is the case with most NFL prospects, there are some question marks with Austin.
His smaller stature is a concern, though he never missed a game in college or high school. Former coaches say that's because he is too elusive for defenders to hammer him squarely. But in the NFL, the athletes are bigger and faster and there will be fewer cracks for Austin to slip through.
"That's followed me since I was back at Dunbar," Austin said. "People told me I wouldn't be nothing back then."
And then there was a report last week that Austin scored poorly on the Wonderlic test.
"If you talk to my former coaches, they'll tell you that I'm really smart on the football field," he said. "At the end of the day, I don't think that test has anything to do with football."
Smith, the Dunbar coach, said that Austin is a "great kid" who loves football and refused to be outworked by his peers. Those comments were echoed by West Virginia offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, who said with a southern drawl, "I love that kid to death. It was a pleasure coaching him." He will feel sorry if younger Mountaineers don't follow the example Austin set.
Since finishing his West Virginia career, Austin has been racking up frequent flyer miles while zigzagging all over the country. Corralled in meeting rooms or back in his hotel room, Austin hasn't done much sightseeing. He has met with at least a dozen NFL teams and also attended the local pro day the Ravens held at their facility earlier this month.
"He's a great player. He's going to have just a phenomenal career," Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said last week. "He's a special kid. He's wired the right way."
Austin, who will attend the first round of the draft at Radio City Music Hall, loves Baltimore, saying it "is the place that made me the person I am today." But if he has a preference of where he wants to begin his NFL career, he isn't revealing it.
"I don't really care because I am the one who has to make it work no matter where I go," he said.
It will be up to his future employers to figure out the best way to utilize Austin's unique skill set on that 100-yard-long chess board. But if you ask his former offensive coordinator, it might be easier than you think: Get Austin into space, get the ball into his hands, and it will be checkmate.
"It is his genetic, God-given ability that makes him great," Dawson said. "I can't tell you what makes him move faster in a shorter space and time than other people. God blessed him."
Name: Tavon Austin
Hometown: Baltimore, MD
High school: Dunbar H.S.
College: West Virginia
Height: 5 feet 8 inches
Weight: 174 pounds
DOB: March 15, 1991
Mel Kiper Jr., ESPN: 16th to St. Louis Rams
Pete Prisco, CBS Sports: 9th to New York Jets
Gil Brandt, NFL.com: 14th to Carolina PanthersCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun