While West Virginia University QB Geno Smith might take center stage as far as one of the keys to how the 2013 NFL Draft unfolds, his teammate Tavon Austin might just be the most electrifying player about to go pro. Projected as a late first- or early second-round pick, Austin also has a chance to land on a contending team instead of one in major rebuilding mode.
Football fans of WVU have endured a mixed bag of recent alumni when it comes to the NFL Draft and subsequent career success in the league. Last year saw a pleasant surprise when Bruce Irvin went 15th overall to the Seattle Seahawks. It was bittersweet, in that most of the media immediately panned it as a reach at that spot and a highly questionable pick. Irvin turned out to be a disruptive force as a pass rusher, part of a relentless defense that keyed Seattle’s great season and playoff run.
Before that, plenty of WVU talent has either had character baggage (Chris Henry and Adam “Pac-Man” Jones) or hasn’t been able to translate their little-guy speed and playmaking ability from the college highlights to longterm success in the pros (Noel Devine, Pat White, Steve Slaton, Amos Zereoue).
So now we have Baltimore native Tavon Austin, another slight-of-frame (5’9”, 175lb) runner-turned-receiver who’s a threat to score every time he touches the ball, whether on punt and kick returns, out of the backfield, or as a wide-receiver, his official position listing for the NFL draft.
Austin won the Paul Hornung award given to the most versatile college football player in 2012 after he ran for 643 yards and 3 TDs on 72 carries, caught 114 passes for 1,289 yards and 12 TDs, returned 32 kickoffs for 813 yards and a TD and returned 15 punts for 165 yards and another score. He’s one of those “Swiss-Army-Knife” players who can really do it all.
Despite the aforementioned history of Devine and Slaton and Zereoue, and the obvious here-we-go-again feeling that this latest flashy Mountaineer is more likely to flame out than blow up… there’s a buzz about Austin that signals otherwise. WVU Pros recently had a great round up of much of the scout talk and media hype surrounding Tavon Austin’s talent and potential.
NFL & Draft Lead Writer for Bleacher Report Matt Miller told me he thinks Austin could be “a big-time impact” player as an inside-slot receiver and return man, sees skill set/talent potential similar to Randall Cobb and Desean Jackson, and envisions him as a late-first-round possibility to San Francisco, with the best fits being Denver or New England.
In fact, penciling in Austin at #29 to the Patriots is becoming a popular sentiment, including the most recent Fansided mock draft.
Most people see his size as a match for the possibly departing Wes Welker and his big-play potential would certainly make Tom Brady and company even more dangerous. But I don’t think we should rule out the idea of him getting plenty of touches out of the backfield too. He was a RB in high school (you may have heard of his legendary high school highlight tape) and he carried the ball 21 times for 352 yards vs. Oklahoma in 2012 en route to an eye-popping 572 all-purpose yards (6 yards shy of the NCAA record set by Emmit White against the New Mexico State defense).
One of the main reason guys like Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III took the league by storm (beyond their passing skills and grace under pressure) was the fact that if/when they did “make a play” it was often a back breaker that saw them taking it to the house. A rookie WR like Austin certainly wont have the ball in his hands as much as those QB’s, but he can still be a potential game changer along the lines of Cobb and Jackson as mentioned, or perhaps like a healthy Percy Harvin without all the baggage. While his size might scare away some teams, he never missed a game at West Virginia despite amassing enough touches and yards to fill highlight reel after highlight reel.
While he’s most-often rated as a late-first or early-second rounder, Austin might not be a foolish reach to be picked earlier. Maybe the Rams want to use that extra first-round pick they got from the Redskins (#22) to give Sam Bradford a much-needed weapon and get a game-changing return man to maximize the field position game of their defense. The Vikings could pick him at #23 to replace the unhappy Harvin.
Other teams picking late in the first round, like the Packers, Colts, and Falcons, have nice offenses and will likely draft defense. But the Texans playoff appearance reinforced that they are in need of an offensive threat to complement RB Arian Foster and WR Andre Johnson. And of course San Francisco and New England are intriguing landing spots where they will be looking to add play makers.
But there’s another team, sitting at #24 in the first round, that might also want a shiny new toy for their young quarterback and this should scare the hell out of the rest of the league: imagine Tavon Austin in Seattle’s backfield next to Marshawn Lynch as a possible option for QB Russell Wilson in the zone read game.
The Seahawks are one of the few teams without major glaring holes, they can afford to swing big and land this home-run hitter in the first round. They have WR’s Golden Tate, Sidney Rice, and Doug Baldin (a nice group, but not exactly murderers row), and return man and backup RB Leon Washington is heading into his 8th season. Despite all the deserved praise for Wilson, he’s still a young QB who would benefit greatly from the type of safe quick-slant passes that Austin always threatens to take the distance.
This draft is shaping up as defense heavy, with lots of depth of talent at defensive tackle and safety. But perhaps the biggest catch might come with an offensive weapon heading from West Virginia to the Northwest.