By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
This will not surprise you if you’ve been in this neck of the woods the past three years, but it sure got those good folks in St. Louis fired up.
Seems they are beginning to realize the special talents St. Louis Rams first-round draft pick Tavon Austin showed Mountaineer fans as he caught passes, ran reverses and, most of all, ran back kicks.
A week or so ago, and ESPN’s Mike Sando swears this is the way it went down, Austin grabbed a punt on the right sideline and broke into the clear.
All that stood between him and the goal line was punter Johnny Hekker, a real mismatch considering linebackers have troubles tackling Austin in the open field.
Austin put on a shake, then a back and was gone, leaving Hekker so thoroughly embarrassed at his dismal effort that he fell to the ground, clutching at his hamstring as if he had pulled it in an effort to get some sympathy from some unsympathetic but highly amused teammates.
“Come on, that is hilarious,” Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan said later. “(Austin) is the real deal, man.”
Austin and his WVU teammate Stedman Bailey, drafted in the third round, have become a hot ticket duo in St. Louis, each creating a tremendous impression.
Early on, Torry Holt, the Rams’ great receiver who Bailey reached out to for guidance even before the draft, expressed his views on what these two can do.
Now Holt’s partner in the Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” Isaac Bruce has put his stamp of approval on what he’s seen.
“I had to go to the highlight reel,” Bruce said when asked about the two. “Austin, he’s electrifying. I mean, you look at this guy, he can stop on a dime and leave you two nickels. He can get vertical and then run away from you. That’s a rarity in the league.”
“Initially what I saw was his route running ability. He has the potential to be special. I wouldn’t be surprised to see his early success in this league.”
That’s a huge compliment coming from one of the best pure route runners in the NFL when he played.
On Sept. 7, WVU plays its biggest game of the season at Oklahoma and should bring a large crowd with them, so here’s a way to turn the trip into a big-time weekend.
This is a suggestion if you have some time on your hands and are making that trip. The next day, Sept. 8, Austin and Bailey make their NFL regular season debuts in St. Louis with a game against the Arizona Cardinals.
Stopping on the way home might make it a trip to remember.
The other day former WVU football coach Don Nehlen, a Hall of Fame member, was talking about how football had changed from his day, which ended not all that long ago.
“When we had spring football, we wore pads every single day,” he said, referring to rules now that keep teams from working in full pads for much of the spring. “It’s just a different game. It’s not as physical.”
The reason, of course, is a new-found emphasis on safety, especially trying to limit the number of head injuries and concussions in the game.
Nehlen has his own thought on how to accomplish that.
“If all these guys who are changing the rules want is to make it safe, just get rid of the facemask,” he said.
On the surface, that would seem counterproductive considering that the mask, invented by another Hall of Fame coach, Paul Brown, is supposed to increase safety.
“When I played football, before the facemask, you tackled with your shoulder and you blocked with your shoulder because you didn’t want to go see your girlfriend with a broken nose,” Nehlen said.
“I never heard of head injuries when I played football ... and our helmets were nowhere near as good as these helmets. And we had guys who could play football. The masks today are nothing but weapons.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.