By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
As any recruiter knows, one of his best friends in the art of drawing prospects to his school is the Internet.
It is also his worst enemy, and that is the lesson Maryland learned almost half a decade ago now.
The team that comes into Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium for a noon game Saturday once was hot on the trail of the greatest prep running back in the state of Maryland’s history, an undersized lad who had rushed for just fewer than 8,000 yards and scored 790 points while leading his school, Dunbar, to three consecutive state titles.
Oh, they wanted Tavon Austin, all right ... and almost had him.
“They were heavy on me. I remember my junior year, coach (Ralph) Friedgen flew a helicopter to my high school game. That was something to see. I don’t think it ever happened to anybody in Baltimore,” he said, smiling at the thought.
It had to be something to see ... just watching to see if that helicopter could get off the ground carrying Friedgen’s bulk.
Anyway, Austin’s head had been turned, and he was leaning toward Maryland when an item appeared on the Internet that changed everything.
“The main thing was I saw something on the Internet that said I was going to play cornerback, and it kind of scared me,” he admitted. “You know, you go to college they ask you what position you want to play, but when I saw that in the paper I kind of backed off that for West Virginia.”
Oh, the Maryland coaches denied there were any thoughts of putting him at cornerback, but it was too late.
“They came to talk to me and told me it was false, but I kind of didn’t trust them then,” he said.
He was West Virginia bound.
“I’m glad I did. Everything happens for a reason. Coach (Dana) Holgorsen came in, and it was one of the best things that happened in my life, not just me but all the wide receivers and quarterbacks,” he said.
If you are wondering how such a thing could happen, let us provide a theory that is labeled as “The Curse of Steve Slaton.”
Slaton, the one-time WVU hero, had grown up in eastern Pennsylvania and was a star football player and sprinter, a player who offered a coach all he could ever want ... especially a coach like the aforementioned Friedgen.
Slaton wanted to go to Maryland. He had committed there, only to learn that Friedgen had over-recruited running backs and was withdrawing the Maryland offer.
Enter Rich Rodriguez and West Virginia, who never saw a back with the raw talent Slaton had that he didn’t like. He gobbled him up, sat him through most of the first four games of the season, including Maryland, then unleashed him on Virginia Tech in the fifth game as he gained 90 yards on 11 carries.
The next week the secret was out as he gained 139 yards on 25 carries against Rutgers.
That primed him for Louisville, a key encounter in the history of football at WVU, for the Mountaineers and Louisville were caught up in a battle for the Big East lead and as the game unfolded, Louisville seemed to be the better team.
The Cardinals built a 24-7 lead entering the fourth quarter, but fate would be on WVU’s side. The Mountaineer starting quarterback, Adam Bednarik, was injured, which forced Rodriguez to put in his backup QB, a freshman named Patrick White, who teamed with Slaton to engineer a fourth-quarter comeback that led to a 46-44 victory in three overtimes.
Slaton? He wound up carrying the ball 31 times for 188 yards and scoring five touchdowns, adding yet another TD on a pass reception.
Maryland’s loss had turned WVU into a football power, finishing that year with an 11-1 record, including a 38-35 victory in the Sugar Bowl over Georgia.
Slaton rushed for 204 yards and three touchdowns in that game.
By the time the Maryland reject had finished his three-year collegiate career, the pros having called for his abilities, he had rushed for 3,923 yards and 50 touchdowns while catching passes for 805 yards and five more TDs.
Maryland has not beaten WVU since losing Slaton to the Mountaineers and WVU has scored more than 30 points in each of the last five games.
And now Austin gets his last shot at his home state university.
“I’m definitely excited,” he admitted. “I definitely want to turn it up and do a little something special.”
Considering that over the past two years he has caught 18 passes for 228 yards and two touchdowns, you can probably expect a huge day out of him.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.