(Editor’s Note: Eric Galko is the Director of Scouting for the website OptimumScouting.com and has been nice enough to offer his services to Crystal Ball Run, profiling a 2013 NFL Draft hopeful in this space every week.
In his first profile, Galko looked at the curious case of Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, and where he could fit in on an NFL roster.
Today, he evaluates another fascinating draft prospect, Tavon Austin.)
The Clemson Tigers defense in the 2011-2012 season featured three top 120 picks in the NFL Draft last year and two more signed in undrafted free agency. Despite the NFL talent that was (and still is) on their roster, they were dismantled by one player in their final game at Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
West Virginia used one man (and for the most part, one main play) to score not one, not two, not three, but FOUR touchdowns in a 70-33 blowout win against the Tigers. That one man, Tavon Austin, has seen his dominance as a runner, receiver, and returner lead him from two-time Maryland player of the year to All-American teams to a possible Top 50 draft selection come April of 2013.
A former 5-Star recruit out of Maryland, Tavon Austin's "only" weakness as a prospect out of high school was his size. The (listed) 5'9, 174 runnning back committed to the University of West Virginia after passing on many SEC, ACC, and Big Ten schools. Immediately moved to receiver in his freshman season, Austin averaged 25.1 yards per kickoff return and had one return touchdown on route to an All-Big East Freshman team.
But Austin's explosiveness was not to be used only on special teams. In 2010, he continued his fantastic return abilities (19.2 yards per kick returns, 10.1 yards per punt return) but also was voted to the All-Big East team as a receiver.
After a nearly 800 yard receiving season in explosive fashion, he made himself into the premier receiver on the roster. And in 2011, he began to show the true promise a playmaker like he can be.
He and Geno Smith developed quite a relationship as a quarterback-receiver duo. However, it wasn't up to Smith to allow Austin to remain productive. Averaging just under 200 all-purpose yards per game, Austin was 6th in the country in punt return yards and 20th in kick return yards to go along with his most successful rushing season in his college career. Combine those two productive numbers with a West Virginia record 101 catches (just the 2nd Big East receiver with over 100 catches in a season).
As an inside receiver in the West Virginia offense, Austin gets the chance to be motioned on reverses, be used in underneath routes to allow for run after catch opportunities, as well as exploit safeties and nickel cornerbacks in deep routes. But it's Austin's complete development as receiver that could have NFL scouts either curious about his ceiling or excited for his potential.
There's no doubt that Austin will have instant NFL value as a returner, on reverses, and getting vertical as a safety splitter in the NFL. Much of his college production has stemmed from forward pitching reverse (considered a pass/reception in the stat book, see Clemson game) or a middle of the field skinny post, both of which allowed for his big play ability to thrive without much work from his route running precision.
But thanks to the creativity and maximizing of receiver talent that coach Dana Holgorsen has to offer as well as the quick developing, strong armed Geno Smith, Austin could be in-store for even a bigger and more NFL-friendly jump as a prospect.
Last season, we saw a creative offensive mind, an athletic, strong-armed quarterback, and a slot receiver turned complete, dynamic outside presence become one of the most fun offenses to watch in college football. And that offense, the Baylor Bears, featured a Heisman winner, a coach of the year nomination, and two Top 20 picks in the 2012 NFL Draft in Robert Griffin and receiver Kendall Wright.
Could Geno Smith and Tavon Austin develop into a 2012 version of Robert Griffin and Kendall Wright?
In a lot of ways, yes. Geno Smith is a fantastic athlete who grew so much in quarterback maturity in the pocket and with decision making in his first year under coach Holgorsen, much further along than RG3 was coming into his final season in college
As for Austin, he hasn't flashed the ability to be a "Z", outside receiver the way Wright did. But while he may not be able to develop in his route running or his ball skills the way Wright was able to, Austin could have a similar impact in college. He'll need to showcase more downfield separation, physicality in the short area, and ability to catch away from his body consistently to be a Top 20 worthy receiver. And while size may have been and still is his biggest detterant as a prospect, NFL team have had successes with undersized yet dynamic playmakers (see Darren Sproles (5'6), DeSean Jackson (5'9), and Wes Welker (5'9)).
It's up to Austin and the rest of this West Virginia offense to reach their ceilings this year and become not only among the Big 12's best, but also one of countries best teams. But if Austin's 2012 Orange Bowl is an indicator of the future, he should have no trouble both dominating opposite Big 12 defenses in a multitude of ways as well as impressing NFL scouts with his expected development as a receiver.
Eric Galko covers the NFL Draft and NFL whole as the Director of Scouting for OptimumScouting.com, and will be writing an NFL Draft profile for Crystal Ball Run every Friday.
Be sure to follow him on Twitter @OptimumScouting.