Tavon Austin is arguably the best athlete ever to wear a West Virginia football uniform. And while he may lack prototypical NFL size, WVU's No. 1 should still be a first-round lock for the upcoming NFL draft.
Size has always been the problem for the 5'9", 175-pound Austin. At the same time, it hasn't really been a problem at all.
Coming out of Dunbar High School in Baltimore, Md., Austin boasted one of the nastiest high school highlight tapes known to man. The first bit of actual game film in the 10-minute tape shows Austin—who weighed 150 pounds and change at the time (via Rivals.com)—extinguishing a would-be tackler on special teams. Austin then goes on to humiliate defenders all across the Eastern seaboard for the next 10 minutes of edited highlight gold.
Still, despite the incredible and unteachable skill displayed by Austin, his offer list wasn't all that impressive. It certainly wasn't commensurate with his peerless statistics. According to his official WVU bio, Austin won three state titles and set four Maryland career records: touchdowns (123), points (790), rushing yardage (7,962) and total offense (9,258).
Those statistics earned Austin a respectable offer list that included WVU, Maryland, Boston College, Michigan and North Carolina, though he was still passed over by many top programs because of his dimensional shortcomings.
Fast forward four years, and Austin is in a familiar situation.
He finished his career at West Virginia as the school's all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards, kickoff return yardage and kickoff return touchdowns and was showered with individual recognition at year's end.
He was nearly a consensus All-American and earned the Paul Hornung Award, given to college football's most versatile player.
On the way to earning those awards, Austin had arguably the best single-game performance in NCAA history. Against a talented Oklahoma defense, he amassed 572 to all-purpose yards, leaving him just six yards shy of the NCAA record. Emmitt White of Utah State set that record back in 2000 against New Mexico State, which is hardly comparable competition.
Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops has been around the block. He's coached his team to a national title and earned multiple Coach of the Year honors. But even the veteran Stoops has never witnessed an athlete with the same ability as Austin (via Berry Tramel, The Oklahoman):
I would venture to say there’s not many people could have done what he did, just because of his unique ability to run in space and not get our hands on him. Certainly, the effort, the speed he was able to do it at, to cut like he was able to do, was something I haven’t seen on a football field.
I’ve seen a lot of the great, the Barry Sanders of the world, that can stop and move lateral that fast. That’s something I’d never seen. One of the great performances by a rusher. A lot of running backs can’t, no running back can do what that guy did. There’s no one built like that. So again, it was a perfect storm.
Austin did all of this in what was essentially his first full game at the running back position since high school. Usually an inside receiver, he also shined in the return game.
As a testament to his versatility, No. 1 was one of just three players in 2012 to score a receiving, rushing, punt return and kick return touchdown. Joining him was Oregon all-purpose star De'Anthony Thomas, who didn't make the list until his kickoff return touchdown in the opening seconds of the Fiesta Bowl.
The third member of the list to hit the all-purpose TD grand slam is one of the few receivers with similar value in terms of versatility in the upcoming draft: Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. At 6'3", 205 pounds, he may project as a better NFL prospect than Austin. But though Patterson does boast an impressive blend of size and speed, he isn't even in the same realm of quickness as Austin.
So while Austin may not have prototypical NFL size, NFL scouts and defenders from Clemson, S.C., to Norman, Okla., can agree: Tavon Austin and his unique skill set should be off the board on the first day of April's NFL draft.
However, even if he does slide back to the second day of the draft, he will follow the same blueprint he did when he arrived at West Virginia.
Some NFL teams will learn the easy way just how talented Austin is: by seeing him on the Monday-morning highlight reels. Others, though, will learn the hard way—the same way Oklahoma and many other teams learned that there is no one quite like Tavon Austin.