St. Louis Ram WR/RB Tavon Austin speaks about returning to Baltimore, where he played football at Dunbar. Austin looks forward to playing in front of family and friends on Sunday against the Ravens. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun)
St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher has already given receiver Tavon Austin the ultimate compliment, even though Austin has been in a Rams uniform fewer than three years.
In the 2013 NFL draft, Austin was the No. 8 overall selection by the Rams out of West Virginia.
"Well, it's pretty simple. I didn't want to have to coach against him," Fisher said Wednesday when asked what motivated him to draft Austin so early despite leaguewide concerns about his size. "I didn't want to have to defend him. We'll start there, and he's just an explosive player."
And so, Austin becomes Ravens coach John Harbaugh's headache. Austin, the former Dunbar standout, returns home this weekend as the Ravens (2-7) host St. Louis (4-5) Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
Harbaugh doesn't want to be rude or anything, but he'd like to ruin Austin's homecoming. There might not be a more dynamic and versatile threat than the 5-foot-8 176-pound playmaker. He leads the Rams in receptions with 30 for 305 yards and four touchdowns, which means he can beat you as a receiver. He is second on the team in rushing with 225 yards on 28 carries, so he can beat you as a running back.
"This guy is a playmaker in every way," Harbaugh said. "Start with the shots, double-move shots downfield, and then they make him a ball carrier on the perimeter. It's almost a wing-T type of philosophy. They have [Todd] Gurley — who is as talented a back as I've seen in a long time in this league as a rookie — running between the tackles and the stretch-zone play.
"Then you have to defend Tavon on all the fly sweeps and the reverses. It's a misdirection offense that causes you a lot of trouble. Those two guys, they've done a very good job of using those two guys that way, and we're going to have to have a great plan for it."
Fisher admits it took time to work Austin into the game plan. He isn't big enough to be the prototype receiver or powerful enough to consistently carry the ball. But the Rams have come up with some nifty packages for Austin because he runs the 40-yard dash in 4.2 seconds.
They'll use him on quick hitches and bubble screens as a receiver. As a runner, they'll use him on what are called jet or fly sweeps or tosses or end arounds. As a returner, there might not be anybody better.
Austin has two speeds: blur and goodbye. He is tied for third in the NFC in total touchdowns, with seven, and is the only player in NFL history with a punt return of 75 or more yards in each of his first three seasons.
"I don't think we did as good a job [getting him the ball] as we should have over the last couple years — not to his fault, but to ours," Fisher said. "So, now we're finding creative ways to get the ball in his hands, and he's very explosive.
"He's got great speed and has had a lot of big plays for us. He just changes angles, [which] forces defensive players to change angles, because he has got such great speed."
It really wasn't a major adjustment for Austin, because he has been a running back most of his career. At Dunbar, he also played receiver and safety but was the featured runner when he rushed for 2,660 yards on 218 carries his senior season while leading the Poets to a state championship.
The move to receiver came as a freshman at West Virginia, but Austin never forgot how to carry the ball.
"Running back was what I played my whole life, so it definitely wasn't tough," Austin said. "It's about going out there and trusting the scheme and going out there and making something happen. It's all about understanding the scheme, understanding what we're trying to do. I figured out my role, so I'm trying to keep on making plays for us and keep on moving forward."
Austin grew up running the ball for the Gwynns Falls 49ers in Pop Warner football near Mondawmin. He still holds a free clinic in the area for youngsters every year at a field near Douglass High.
Dunbar's Lawrence Smith coached against Austin in recreation football and then was Austin's coach for four years at Dunbar. According to Smith, Austin always had talent and had a significant effect on the style of area runners.
"Tavon could stop on a dime, high step and then hit that other gear and no one could get near him," said Smith, laughing. "Others runners tried that, but they didn't have that gear. We used to joke how Tavon messed up runners around here for a while.
"But overall, a good kid, a jokester who wants to be the life of the party, but has never been in any trouble one day in his life. He was very coachable and always wanted to learn because he wanted to show that an inner city" kid could make it.
But despite setting state records in career points (790), touchdowns (123), total offensive yards (9,258) and rushing yards (7,962), just 14 colleges recruited Austin. He wanted to go to Florida State, but ended up with the Mountaineers.
A lot of major colleges backed off Austin because of his size.
Florida State coach "Jumbo Fisher said he could find a kid like Tavon right up the street from the university," Smith said. North Carolina coach "Butch Davis told him to forget about running back and that he should play receiver, and he could end up playing there on Sundays."
Austin went to West Virginia as a running back and was moved to receiver in his first season. He had 288 career receptions for 3,413 yards and 29 touchdowns, but there were still concerns about his size.
One NFL general manager who wanted Austin was the Ravens' Ozzie Newsome. Fisher, however, selected him before the Ravens chose Florida safety Matt Elam with the No. 32 overall pick.
"They definitely brought me in on a visit," Austin said. "I met with the GM, a great guy. He had a plan for me, that they were going to draft me. They had a plan for me, for my whereabouts when I was in Baltimore and things like that. He's a great guy, but coach 'Fish' pulled the trigger on me. That's the guy I'm rolling with now."
The Ravens don't want to see him rolling Sunday. Austin didn't know how many relatives he had coming to the game, but Smith said since the Ravens were having a bad season, there would be a lot of affordable tickets available.
"For the most part, it's going to feel good to play [at] home. It's about playing in front of my family [more than] anything," Austin said. "I won't let it get to me too much. At the end of the day, I have a job to get done. I'm trying to go in there and play how I always play — hard football, tough."