Surrounded by budding, young football players, Tavon Austin nodded and smiled in approval as they scooted through drills, reacting to his words of direction and encouragement.
It was a meaningful moment Saturday for Austin at Frederick Douglass High as the St. Louis Rams wide receiver and returner conducted his first annual Game Changer youth football camp.
The diminutive former Dunbar star grew up nearby in Baltimore, honing his skills as one of the top prep football players in city history before emerging as an All-American at West Virginia and being taken eighth overall in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft.
"I'm from the same neighborhood, and most of these kids are going to be bigger than me," said the 5-foot-8, 175-pound Austin. "Size doesn't really matter. It's all about the mental aspect of the game and having the heart. I have a lot of heart and I take a lot of pride in what I do. That's what got me over the hump.
"It definitely feels good to give back. It's the first time to do it for my home. It feels good to have your own name on something. I'm just glad to do something positive. This is where I played Pop Warner. This is where I got started."
Joined at his football camp by former Maryland and NFL free-agent safety Madieu Williams and Ravens wide receiver LaQuan Williams, who played at Maryland and Poly, Austin signed autographs, posed for photographs, threw the football and shared his personal story with roughly 170 campers.
Austin had a stellar high school and college career, overcoming a lack of size with his acceleration and electric moves.
He was practically untouchable at Dunbar as he led the Poets to three consecutive Class 1A state championships. He set Maryland state high school records with 9,258 total yards from scrimmage, 7,962 rushing yards, 123 touchdowns and 790 points. He rushed for 2,660 yards and 34 touchdowns as a senior before accepting a scholarship to West Virginia.
As a wide receiver for the Mountaineers, Austin caught 288 career passes for 3,413 yards and 29 touchdowns and rushed for 1,033 yards and six touchdowns. In his final season, he caught 114 passes for 1,289 yards and 12 touchdowns.
After the Rams traded up to acquire Austin last year, he signed a four-year, $12.751 million contract that included a $7.654 million signing bonus.
"I'm very proud, and I'm more proud because Tavon achieved his goals, and that's great for a mother to actually watch their kid from a little tot to achieve the goals he wanted to achieve," said Cathy Green, Austin's mother, while helping her son with the camp Saturday. "He wasn't the biggest, but he had the motivation. He knew what he wanted to do.
"I look up to him. It's hard to have a dream and follow it all the way through and push for that dream and never let it go. That's what he did, and that's why he is where he is today."
Austin's uninterrupted run of success hit a few bumps during his rookie year as he adjusted to the nuances of the NFL. Austin had several touchdowns called back because of penalties last season, and he missed the final three games of the season with a sprained ankle.
"It was just an OK year," Austin said. "I'm kind of hard on myself. It wasn't the best season I can possibly do. I'm going to keep grinding. I'm learning a lot more. I'm a lot smarter. From there, I'm going to hopefully have a better season this year."
Austin, still absorbing a more complicated playbook, got off to a slow start for the Rams, dropping six passes in his first five games. He finished the season with 40 receptions for 418 yards and four touchdowns, rushed for 151 yards on nine carries and had 678 return yards.
He displayed flashes of his talent, most notably against the Indianapolis Colts. He finished with two catches for 138 yards, both for touchdowns, and ran back a punt 98 yards for a touchdown. However, consistent production eluded Austin.
"Throughout the year, I had some flashes," Austin said. "I had a lot of big gains and plays taken away from me. It's all about being patient. That game against the Colts stuck out. Hopefully, I have a lot more games like that one ahead of me."
Austin is working to polish his route-running skills and upgrade his knowledge of NFL defenses. He has been working on everything from his splits, pass patterns, fakes and blocking.
"For me, it's more about the mental game, learning coverages, learning the whole offensive playbook," Austin said. "The game slows down for a lot of people as you get comfortable out there. It did for me last year, and I'm learning new things."
The Rams have said they're committed to getting Austin more involved this year. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer drew criticism last season for not being more creative in how he used the speedster. For much of the season, the Rams had Austin line up in the slot and threw him bubble screens. It wasn't until later in the season that he began lining up outside the hash marks and becoming more productive.
The Rams finished 29th in receiving yards and 26th in yards per reception last season.
"Definitely, it's all about being in the right position," said Austin, who averaged 18 yards per catch in his final four games of the season. "My coaches believe in me, my team believes in me. I'm very excited."
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