By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
You wonder what might have been for Stedman Bailey if Tavon Austin weren’t at West Virginia University.
After all, last season, Bailey caught 114 passes with him here, 25 of them for touchdowns and gained 1,622 yards.
What if he’d been the featured receiver?
See, no one really knew about Stedman Bailey, not with Austin doing the miraculous things he did on a regular basis, yet there he was, maybe really the best pure receiver in America.
Even St. Louis, which gathered him in with the 92nd selection in the draft, that coming in the third round, couldn’t believe what they saw when they came to work him out.
Oh, they had the numbers from the season, but they also had the numbers from The NFL Combine and that showed he wasn’t 6-feet tall and that he didn’t break 4.5 in the 40.
Nothing special … until they put him through their private workout.
First, Austin did his thing in a private workout and general manager Les Snead and coach Jeff Fisher, who must be a closet WVU fan considering he has drafted John Thornton, Pacman Jones, Austin and Bailey through his career, thought they had seen it all.
Then Bailey took the field.
They put him through his paces and were stunned at what they saw.
Snead approached the quarterback he had throwing to Bailey and listened intently to what he heard.
“To hear the quarterback say, ‘This guy is 5-11, whatever, but it’s like throwing to a 6-foot-3 guy. He goes up and gets the ball,’” Snead said.
It wasn’t like they were working out a kid who was bypassing his senior year in college to turn pro, a green kid who might be a bit immature, who might be a project.
Not at all.
“A good story is the quarterbacks went and said, ‘We thought Stedman was a teammate and was along for the ride. We didn’t know who he was,’ and they came out of the workout going, ‘Wow, that guy is actually a good player,’” Snead said.
As far as the Rams were concerned, you can throw away the measurements that came out of the Combine.
No, Fisher noted, he doesn’t run 4.4 but …
“He plays fast,” the coach said.
“He probably ran (at the Combine) 4.51, but he plays faster. He has good acceleration after the start. He’s a deceptive player,” Snead added.
The coach and the general manager understood how Austin simply stole the spotlight away and that aspects of Bailey’s game weren’t obvious unless you studied it.
That’s when you saw things.
“The playmaking ability,” Fisher said. “He has run-after-catch ability as well. When you look at the tape you automatically go look for No. 1 (Austin), and No. 3 (Bailey) is overlooked, but (No.) 3 ends up making catches all over the field. Circus catches in the end zone, elevated contested catches.”
“Like coach said, when he catches the ball he’ll run away from people. It’s funny with Tavon and him — when we were originally talking to him — I think he finished runner-up for receiver of the year. Is that the Biletnikoff? I think he was runner-up for that award this year. He’s always probably overlooked because of Tavon, but he was runner-up for that award behind the USC kid, the sophomore there (Marqise Lee).”
Bailey understands the differences between himself and Austin, accepted them from the moment he walked on campus here and saw what Austin brought to the table.
“I would say we’re both very dynamic football players,” he said. “Tavon is very elusive. You can use Tavon quite a (few) different ways. That’s what makes him such a dynamic player. You can line him up in the backfield. You can put him in the slot, kick return, punt return. He does all of that extremely well.
“I’m more of a receiver that can line up on the outside. I can get in the slot and work. I’m definitely a guy that can get on special teams. We’re both hardworking guys that pretty much have our own ways of playing.”
Bailey is probably more a cerebral player than Austin, whose on-field skills give him his edge.
Asked to explain 25 touchdown catches, he noted that a whole lot more went into it than just running a route and catching a ball.
“It’s just hard work, pretty much going over the game plan throughout the week, studying good film, trying to study my opponent. Just trying to come up with ways to find myself getting into the end zone, no matter what it takes,” he said.
Certainly, the Rams have put something exciting together for the future with quarterback Sam Bradford throwing to Austin and Bailey.
“We’re going to lobby with the league to see if we can play with more than one ball. We’re going to need more than one ball,” Fisher said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.