By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
You will not find Tavman Austley on your West Virginia roster for Wednesday’s Orange Bowl showdown with Atlantic Coast Conference champion Clemson, but he is there, capable of doing more things than any other player on the field.
He is as swift as the swiftest player you can find, as slithery as the mercury on a table from a broken thermometer. His hands are strong, his stride long. He plays inside and outside, this Tavman Austley.
This year he has caught 156 passes for 2,260 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Of course, Tavman Austley is a figment of an overactive imagination, a make-believer combination of the Mountaineers’ Dynamic Duo of receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
Together, of course, they are everything any quarterback such as Geno Smith could ever want in a receiver, but even separately, with their own quite opposite skill sets, they give Smith a stadium full of options that make the WVU passing game among the most dangerous in the nation.
Austin is short, quick, elusive and fast. Bailey is taller, longer with his strides, difficult to tackle, impossible to cover and in possession of the best hands in college football.
They are teammates, friends and they, like everyone else, envy what the other can do.
“He does things I wish I could do better and I do things he wishes he could do better,” Austin admitted recently. “At the end of the day, we both do our part.”
“He just makes plays,” said Austin of Bailey. “He barely drops the ball. And he’s always positive in practice. He is always bringing me up.”
And what does Austin do that Bailey would like to be able to incorporate into his own game?
“I would take his shiftiness. I think he’s second-to-none in the country at making people miss,” Bailey said.
That is why a short pass to Austin, who as a slot receiver is Mr. Inside, is just as dangerous as a deep pass is to Mr. Outside, which is where Bailey plays.
In truth, Austin is probably tackled less and takes less punishment than anyone in football, least of all someone who caught 89 passes for 1,069 yards, returned 31 kickoffs for 821 yards and ran back 19 punts for 268 yards, all of that combining to make the No. 1 player in WVU history in all-purpose yards and No. 2 in the nation this year.
He is here, then is there. He goes slowly, gives you a hip and accelerates around you. He takes what he can get then steps out of bounds, defenders often wondering where he might have gone.
He has had a punt return of 64 yards, a kickoff return of 100 yards, but he can make a 7-yard gain into something that defies description.
“Film sessions are always like a highlight reel, a lot of ooohs and aaahs,” Bailey said. “We know what he’s capable of. You just never know what he’s coming up with. He’s so shifty and can change direction so fast it’s amazing to watch him play.”
That is not to say that Bailey doesn’t have his shifty moments, much as he did this year when he was running a deep crossing route, ran into a defender in the middle of the field, pushed him away after catching the ball, cut back and went down the other sideline.
And if Austin’s 90-yard kickoff return against South Florida was the most electric play in the game, the most important was Bailey’s fourth-and-10 reception of a Smith pass for 26 yards, allowing them to kick the game-winning field goal.
Due to the positions they play, they have different roles. Austin is in the slot; he gets the ball on swings and screens and short crossing patterns as well as reverses. Because he is in the slot, he often is covered by a safety, which is like trying to cover a king-sized bed with a napkin.
“I may be small, but I’m quicker than a lot of dudes,” Austin said.
That he’s a receiver is something of a surprise, for he came out of Baltimore’s Dunlap High as Maryland’s all-time leading prep rusher. He was to Maryland what Noel Devine had been to Florida in his high school days and if you don’t believe that, YouTube will make a believer of you.
But as he came out of high school, even with all his records, there were doubts because of his size.
“In high school, everyone was always saying, ‘Tavon, when you go to college you’re not going to be able to do this and you’re not going to be able to do that because you’re too small.’ But everything worked out. I’m proud of myself. I know I’m small, but I got a big heart,” he said.
As a freshman, then-coach Bill Stewart moved him to wide receiver because he had Devine at running back. He was, however, the heir apparent.
When Dana Holgorsen was brought in to run the offense as head coach in waiting, he decided he wanted him to fill the slot role that Jock Sanders had occupied the previous year. In his offense, the slot receiver is a weapon.
Now one can argue that as a slot receiver he caught the ball “only” 89 times and ran it 13 times, while freshman running back Dustin Garrison had 139 touches as a runner and 24 as a receiver, meaning the running back was getting more chances.
But Holgorsen felt he could get more inventive ways to get the ball to Austin as a slot receiver and also get it to him in space where he is a threat to score a touchdown every time he touches it.
Austin admits that when Stewart first put him at wide receiver he had some doubts. It was a big change for him. As a youth, he had worshipped Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions, studied him and adopted many of the moves that had made Sanders the best running back in the NFL.
“The first year I had some doubts (about playing wide receiver). At the same time, I knew if I came in and worked I could do it, especially with great older guys ahead of me showing me the ropes. I have to thank them and I have to say that hard work really pays off,” Austin said.
It showed as he went from 780 yards a year ago to a 1,000-yard receiver this year.
“That makes me feel all the hard work you put in over the summer and spring finally paid off,” he said.
Bailey, on the other hand, always has been a receiver. In fact, he was Geno Smith’s receiver in high school, playing under former Mountaineer linebacker Damon Cogdell at Miramar High not far from the site of the original Orange Bowl.
They know each other’s every move, every thought. Think about how it works professionally when a quarterback and receiver spend years together like Joe Montana and Jerry Rice or Joe Namath and Don Maynard or Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry.
That’s how it is with Bailey and Smith.
“Steadman is my best friend. I’ve known him since the seventh grade. That’s never going to stop,” Smith said. “Sometime we’re going to have to leave here and I’m pretty sure we’ll split up, but we will remain best friends.”
Being on the same wave length, Smith and Bailey seem to know when they can connect, even if Bailey seems covered. He is the deep threat, the man who gets the long touchdowns.
And teamed with Austin, this presents quite the dilemma to a defensive coordinator and a secondary.
“It’s helpful for me to be able to take the top off the defense, and then you’ve got Tavon who can catch a lot of things underneath and make guys miss,” said Bailey. “That keeps the defense on their heels.”
If you put the two cornerbacks, normally the best cover men, on them, it means that Ivan McCartney or any of the other threats have to be handled by linebackers and safeties, creating mismatches there. And when you want to double-team one of them, or both, you have too few in the box to stop Garrison when he runs.
“That’s what’s so dynamic about this offense,” said Bailey. “He can put us in different spots and just pretty much put the playmakers where they need to be to make a play.”
“Not only one person is getting the ball,” Austin added. “It shows everybody can touch the ball and when you get it you’ve got to do something with it.”
That has not been much of a problem.
Both receivers are back next season, unless Austin leaves for the NFL early, but he denied he had any thoughts about that before leaving for Florida.
“I’ve got one more year of work here,” Austin said. “One more year and you’ll see the whole thing.”
Asked if that meant he was coming back next season, Austin said, “Yeah, I’ll hang around another year.”
That will keep Bailey from realizing one of his dreams. He’s happy as an outside receiver, but wonders what it might be like if Holgorsen could line him up outside or in the slot from play to play.
“I kind of wish I could do it all, bounce around in the slot and then go outside. I did start in the slot when Coach Holgorsen first came here,” he said. “To be honest, I wish I could get to do some of the things Tavon gets to do, but I know in this offense I have a role and I do what I’m supposed to do to the best of my ability.”
Put another way, Bailey would like to become Tavman Austley. It may happen, if he’s still at West Virginia for his senior year.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.