By Mickey Furfari
Times West Virginian
Don Nehlen thinks the versatile Tavon Austin is the fastest, most well-rounded football player West Virginia University has had since 1980.
That includes his 21 years as head WVU coach, Rich Rodriguez’s seven years, then three seasons by the late Bill Stewart, and Dana Holgorsen’s two seasons.
Austin, an All-America scoring star in at least four ways, is a pass receiver, rusher, punt returner and kickoff returner.
Nehlen recalled that Willie Drewrey of Columbus, N.J. (1981-82-83-84), and James Jett of Shepherdstown (1989-90-91-92) were among the best such performers he had in similar roles.
Both earned All-America status, Jett in track. Jett already is in the WVU Sports Hall of Fame. Drewrey seems deserving, too.
Each spent several years playing in the National Football League.
“But neither of these two that played for me had as much talent as Tavon Austin,” said Nehlen, WVU’s winningest grandmaster. “Tavon does remind me of both Willie and James, though.”
Austin is at the top of the coach’s list of players he’s seen during his WVU career and since his retirement in 2000.
“Tavon is the best I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of football since I first came to Morgantown in December 1979,” said Nehlen, a College Football Foundation Hall of Famer.
“That kid will be a No. 1 (round) draft pick. He’s a dynamic football player. He’s the best I’ve seen around here or anywhere with his talent and speed.
“If he’s not a first-team All-America selection, then something is wrong, because he’s a special player.”
Nehlen also voiced tremendous respect for Stedman Bailey, the junior wide receiver from Miami. He is expected by Nehlen to pass up a senior season and make himself available for the NFL draft in the spring.
“That kid Bailey isn’t that far behind Austin,” Nehlen continued. “He’s a dynamic player.
“We have two dynamic receivers, that’s for sure. And I think Geno Smith, if truth is known, is the highest rated quarterback out there.”
Smith, a senior from Miami, was the No. 1 Heisman Trophy candidate in the Big 12 before the season’s start.
If he’s not the highest rated, the retired coach thinks he’s close to that, despite his team’s record. Nehlen doesn’t think the pros have seen anybody that throws the ball as well as Smith does.
He believes it’s hard to find these players (this great) on the same team, and two of the three (Smith and Bailey) played at the same high school.
“And those two played together for one of my former players (Damon Cogdell),” he noted proudly. “(Cogdell) has coached a lot of great players, I’ll tell you that.
“But Austin is a special guy. He’s probably a 4.4 (seconds for 40 yards, and maybe even faster). You can’t teach that. I’ve had some doggone good football players who returned punts and kicks.
“But I never had anyone on the same team as these three guys.”