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Tavon Austin in St. Louis could be the next 'Greatest Show on Turf'

The Baltimore Sun

One of my favorite assignments in the past year or so was the feature I did this week on former Dunbar and West Virginia star Tavon Austin, who for weeks has had talent evaluators in NFL organizations and in the media salivating about what he might do in the pros. One quote from my story really summed Austin up nicely.

“I think the teams that view him conventionally as a slot receiver are being short-sighted,” Greg Cosell of NFL Films, whose opinion I respect, told me two weeks ago. “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.”

Now that we know that Tavon is heading to St. Louis, let’s take a look at how he will fit with the Rams.

The Rams drafted a pair of wide receivers, Brian Quick and Chris Givens, in the first four rounds of last year’s draft. Quick didn’t contribute much as a rookie, but he projects as an outside receiver. Givens can play in the slot, but he can do a little bit of everything. You can say the same about Austin, who has been strongly linked to the Rams even since they lost young slot receiver Danny Amendola in free agency.

Surely, Rams quarterback Sam Bradford is smiling because the Rams got him the draft’s most explosive weapon in Austin.

It’s really going to be interesting to see what the Rams to with Austin, especially on the turf out in St. Louis, where Marshall Faulk, a similar-sized running back, was part of “The Greatest Show on Turf.”

The Rams have a void at running back now that Steven Jackson is Atlanta. They are expected to draft one at some point this weekend, but I wonder if the Rams will get creative with Austin like their NFC West rivals in Seattle will do with Percy Harvin (the player that Austin seems to be compared to most).

Hopefully, for entertainment value from afar, the Rams see him as “that ultimate chess piece” that Cosell alluded to.

It often takes receivers a little longer to develop than players at other positions, but Austin thinks he can contribute right away.

“It feels good that teams appreciate my versatility and think that I can step in and be that player, making plays all over the field,” said Austin, who grew up emulating elusive running backs such as Warrick Dunn and Barry Sanders but now admires wide receivers like Wes Welker, Percy Harvin and DeSean Jackson. “I think I’m ready for it.”

Still, Austin admitted that the transition to the college game and the “complex” offense that Bill Stewart ran at West Virginia was not easy for him. “It was complicated for me, which is why I didn’t play much my freshman year,” he said. Though in his defense, he was switching to wide receiver after being the most productive running back in Maryland high school history.

He said it took him until midway through his sophomore year at West Virginia to get the hang of playing receiver. And his career really took off once Dana Holgorsen become head coach in 2011.

As a junior, Austin caught 101 passes for 1,186 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. He was even better as a senior, catching 114 passes for 1,289 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012. He also rushed for 643 yards and three touchdowns. In his four years at West Virginia, Austin scored 40 total touchdowns as a receiver, rusher or returner and 28 came in his final two years.

Oh, and this ridiculousness happened last November.

On the surface, it looks like the coaching staff at West Virginia found creative ways to get the ball in his hands -- screens, jet sweeps, lining him up in the backfield and pitching him the ball -- but Mountaineers offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson feels it was actually quite simple.

“Tavon has some unique abilities,” Dawson said. “So when he has the ball in his hands early, he always seems to make people miss and gain positive yards. All we were trying to was give him the ball as quick as we could in the play and with space. If you can get that kid the ball with space, then he’s going to make people miss. That’s about as creative as we got with him, and in my opinion, that’s not very creative. It’s just trying to get your best player the ball. There are no drills, there are no systems.”

Of course, there will be less space for Austin to maneuver in the NFL. The other players are bigger and faster than in college, and with narrower hashmarks, it will be tougher for him to find running room.

And even though Austin never missed a game in high school or college, there is concern that due to his smaller stature -- 5-foot-8, 174 pounds -- he will be susceptible to big hits and stints on the injury report.

SiriusXM NFL analyst Gil Brandt, once a scouting pioneer for the Dallas Cowboys, said it’s hard for a guy his size to line up and play every down. But at the very least, he sees Austin as a player somewhat like New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles, who will make a big impact despite playing only about half the offensive snaps and on special teams.

“I think he is a very tough, tough mismatch for defenses because wherever you line him up, his speed creates a problem,” he said. “I think he will be drafted in the middle of the first round and help a team a great deal.”

Austin told me that he doesn’t really care where he goes “because I am the one who has to make it work no matter where I go,” but he mentioned the Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers, along with the Rams, as teams he thought would best put his skill set to use.

Lucky for him, he landed in St. Louis. It’s a dream come true.

“Since the first time I touched the football, people always told me I was blessed, that I had something special,” Austin said last week. “I believed in myself and I kept seeing myself getting better and better at it. I stuck with my dream. A lot of people told me the NFL would never happen, but I didn’t listen to them. They don’t believe in nobody in Baltimore, but I kept with it. It’s been a long time, but my dream is about to come true.”

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