By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
There are times in the newspaper writing profession where you feel very similar to a football cornerback.
You have an assignment to cover someone only to find that he is too elusive for you, gives you the slip and is gone before you knew he was even there, especially someone as nifty as Tavon Austin.
The plan out of Tuesday’s interviews for almost everyone was to cover West Virginia University wide receiver Tavon Austin going into the day, let alone after the time coach Dana Holgorsen let the world know that he is expecting a better Tavon Austin this year than the one who performed last year for the Mountaineers.
You might recall the last time you saw Austin before he slipped away without sitting for an interview. It was in that 70-33 Orange Bowl victory over Clemson.
Here’s a list of the things Austin accomplished that day, according to the WVU sports information office.
• Caught an Orange Bowl — and BCS — record four touchdowns on 12 receptions, also a bowl record, in the win over Clemson; his four TD catches were a WVU bowl and school record, while his 12 catches tied a school record.
• Four TDs against Clemson were a career high and set WVU bowl record for points in a game (24).
• Finished with 123 receiving yards against Clemson, fifth 100-yard receiving game of the season and the seventh of his career.
• Tallied a game-best and Orange Bowl-record 280 all-purpose yards, including 117 on kick returns with a long return of 36 yards.
And Holgorsen expects more?
“He’s looking really good,” the coach said. “He’s moving a lot faster than he did.”
What’s faster than a speeding bullet? The blink of an eye, the speed of light?
That’s how fast Austin was last year, and now he’s faster?
“One of the deals that we were talking about him earlier is that he’s fast 15 percent of the time when the ball is in his hands and not fast when the ball’s not in his hands,” Holgorsen explained. “Now he’s playing fast all the time. He looks like a totally different guy, which is obviously exciting.”
This isn’t just a coaching thing, either.
His teammates have noticed the difference in him as he goes through his final spring before leaving for what seem to be certain stardom in the NFL.
“Right now, Tavon is leading this offense,” quarterback Geno Smith reported, “There’s no doubt about it. In the Orange Bowl, he took it upon himself to be that guy in this offense, and now he’s just making us go.
“Not to say anything about the rest of our receivers, but he’s one of those special guys who can make something happen any time he touches the ball.”
A year ago was his first year at inside receiver, the season before his first year at outside receiver, having been moved there as a record-shattering high school running back who gained more than 9,000 yards.
He was moved not because the coaching staff saw a career for him at wide receiver, but to get his skills on the field along with Noel Devine, who was the established running back.
That he proved a capable receiver, however, did not surprise anyone, least of all Holgorsen, who opted to make him a key part of his passing offense.
“He’s got great hand-eye coordination; he’s strong,” Holgorsen said, explaining why he has caught on so well as a receiver. “There are guys with muscles who aren’t strong. He’s got a grip, and he’s got strength. He can snatch that thing out of the air. I don’t know what his vertical is. I hate that weight room – I don’t go down there.”
In fact, even though Austin led the team with a record 101 catches good for 1,181 yards, Holgorsen understands he’s still seeking to reach his full potential.
“We’ve got to get him the ball more,” Holgorsen said. “We did that in the bowl game; he touched it quite a bit. Let’s try to do that again.”
The truth is that the receiving corps is as awesome as is Austin, for he is complemented by a second 1,000-yard receiver in Stedman Bailey with a group of other dangerous receivers such as Ivan McCartney, J.D. Woods and Ryan Nehlen.
Bailey, in fact, says it would be foolhardy for an opponent to think they can just concentrate on shutting down him and Austin.
“I know a lot of guys look at it and see what we did last year and say ‘OK, these are the key guys.’ But we’re working together as receivers as a whole. Each side of the receivers will be doing good, so there really won’t be pressure on me or Tavon,” he said, concluding, “Everyone will have to be watched.”
Austin proved that on Tuesday when he ran a double-move on the media to escape its prevent defense and escape untouched.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.