“He might be the most explosive player I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Mike Mayock has seen plenty of explosive, game-changing players in the thousands of hours he spends every year watching college tape, but none of them have caught his eye quite like Tavon Austin, as he explained on Inside Training Camp Live (h/t Chris Wesseling of NFL.com):
I watched all of his tape, I saw him in person at his pro day….he's almost impossible to cover in short spaces. So the ways you can use this are basically only constrained by the imagination of your offensive coordinator.
To the St. Louis Rams, wide receiver Tavon Austin is more than just a replacement for Danny Amendola. Just as Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt did with the "Greatest Show on Turf" nearly 15 years ago, the former Mountaineer is going to glue fans from across the country to their seats just to watch the Rams play football.
With a 4.34-second 40-yard dash attached to his name, Austin is known for his speed as much as anything else—but that is not what separates him from other young potential superstars.
Plenty of young college stars can run sub-4.4 times, but few can harness their speed in a way that Austin can. Austin blends his outstanding pace with incredible change-of-direction and more physicality than you would expect from a man who weighs less than 180 pounds.
On this play, Austin is caught dead in the water going sideways against an approaching defender. Had any other player on the field been carrying the ball, this play would have resulted in a loss.
Instead, Austin is able to jump cut past the approaching defender and run around the rest of the defense for the touchdown.
Austin is hardly the type of runner who needs to build up speed. He is capable of accelerating and shifting into his fifth and sixth gear faster than a Maserati.
Check out this touchdown from a 2012 game against Texas. After Austin zooms past the slot cornerback to make the initial catch, he is surrounded by defenders.
For any other player, this would have ended with a nice 15- or 20-yard gain. Austin turns this into a touchdown.
Take note of his acceleration when he rounds the corner. Despite coming out of a break, he is able to outrun every Texas defender who was already in a full sprint.
While Austin is usually the shortest player on the field, he certainly does not play the game in a way that his size would indicate. Austin is more than willing to go over the middle of the field, can absorb hits and can even dish out some punishment on his own.
Austin has a build that is just thick enough to prevent him from being injury-prone without weighing him down and diminishing his speed.
Had Austin entered the draft 10 or 15 years earlier, he may not have been considered a first-round pick. Standing at just 5’9”, a less-progressive NFL would have labeled Austin as a slot receiver and punt returner.
The Rams, who traded up to draft Austin eighth overall, clearly believe he can be a game-changing weapon who will transcend the slot receiver position—just like he did in college.
In fact, there are advantages that come with being the smallest player on the field, especially for running backs—a position where Austin enjoyed a great deal of success at West Virginia. Players like Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice are difficult to find in a pile of lineman and can slip through cracks other players cannot.
After all, Austin managed to average a staggering 8.9 yards on 72 carries in 2012.
Tavon Austin’s size was only one reason as to why he was so successful as a running back. In addition to his speed and lateral agility, Austin has exceptional vision and can find holes that other runners would not even dream of attempting to exploit.
Opposing teams will have to deal with Austin in more than one phase of the game. He is an incredibly dangerous return man, where his speed, acceleration, agility and vision are blended and utilized to their maximum when he has more of an open field to work with.
Changing the Game
Austin will produce enough highlights to crash the hard drives at NFL Films, but there are more reasons to keep tabs on his career than just for your viewing pleasure.
Along with players such as Percy Harvin, Antonio Brown, Randall Cobb and fellow rookie Denard Robinson (who is listed as an “offensive weapon” on Jacksonville’s roster), Austin joins a legion of playmakers who are smaller than the poster image of a No. 1 receiver, but have the ability to change a game with a single touch of the football.
While Austin will certainly spend plenty of time lined up in the slot, the Rams will use Austin in a way that continues to blur the lines between running back, receiver and kick returner. Defensive coordinators have ways to take away a team’s top receiver, but they may not be prepared when the receiver is lined up at running back.
There is little doubt that Austin was brought in primarily to replace the void left in the slot that was created by Amendola’s departure in free agency—but that does not mean he will be restricted in the slot in the way Amendola was. Amendola is a talented player in his own right, but Austin has the ability to transcend a single position.
Just as Mike Mayock said, Austin’s potential is only limited by the coaches who choose to restrict it with preconceived notions about what a player of his size “should” be able to do.
If Austin can turn into the elite playmaker whom the Rams (and so many others) believe he is capable of becoming, Austin will change the way receivers are brought into the NFL.
While size and catching radius will always be coveted to a certain extent, teams will be more willing to adapt their system to take advantage of the unique skill set of players who may lack ideal size, but make it up with sheer ability.
It has been quite some time since the Rams have dominated the NFL like the “Greatest Show On Turf” days. Tavon Austin is the type of player who can vault a long-dormant franchise into the stages of relevancy and championship contention.
The St. Louis Rams start their regular season at home against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, Sept. 8, at 4:25 p.m. ET.
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