By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Move over, Stan Musial. St. Louis has a new hero.
His name is Tavon Austin, and if anyone can win the adoration of the fans that Musial, Bob Gibson and Mark McGwire won over in this baseball-mad city, it is this little man with the big talent.
Certainly the Rams believe this West Virginia slot receiver is “The Man” for the 21st century, for they traded up eight spots to take him when it appeared the New York Jets would select him with the ninth pick. The Rams gave Buffalo its first (16), second (46), third (76) and seventh (222) pick for the Bills’ first-round pick (8) and third-round pick (71).
Things did not go quite so well for WVU quarterback Geno Smith, who was thought to be in line to become the first quarterback drafted but was still sitting there when the Buffalo Bills stunned the world by selecting E.J. Manuel, who played for Jimbo Fisher at Florida State, with the 16th selection.
Thought to be no more than a second-round pick in the NFL when the college season ended, in part because he stands but 5-8 and weighs 174 pounds, once the professional scouts got a chance to watch him up close and personal, to talk with him and those who coached him, his stock skyrocketed like nothing since Apple computers in the early days.
He grew to the point that he became the first skill position player taken in the entire draft.
And why not? He caught 288 passes for 3,413 yards and 29 touchdowns as a slot receiver, and was one of the nation’s most dynamic kickoff returners with three TD returns of 98 or more yards.
Oh, and when coach Dana Holgorsen put him at running back — his high school position at Dunbar in Baltimore — for one game against Oklahoma, he broke the school rushing record with 344 rushing yards, some of the Sooner defenders still trying to figure out where he is.
He grew on the professional people so much that former Coach Jon Gruden, speaking on ESPN, said:
“If (Rams’ quarterback) Sam Bradford was watching his alma mater Oklahoma play West Virginia last year, believe me, he wants Tavon Austin because Austin had 580 yards of all-purpose yardage against Oklahoma. He is a devastating modern-day weapon to have.
“Kick it to him, hand it to him, tap it to him, throw it to him, just get this kid the ball. 4.3 is a legitimate time speed. I saw him do the short shuttle and I didn’t even see it, he was so quick. That’s how fast he is.”
And former NFL running back Marshall Faulk, speaking on the NFL network, proclaimed “I believe (quarterback) Sam Bradford is the luckiest man alive” to have Austin to catch his passes and run with the football.
So it was that he stood there on national television, the most electric and versatile player in the draft, speaking to the man who was Tavon Austin in the previous NFL generation, Deion Sanders, and have Sanders say to him, “My son loves you.”
Until he does it, there will be questions whether he can hold together at his size in the NFL, but one man who has no doubt is Holgorsen.
“He’s the toughest guy I’ve ever been around,” Holgorsen said, noting that he not only had never missed a game, but never had missed a practice. “He’s got a strange combination of being a really fast player who can stop and go fast as well as any I’ve been around.”
It is that style that won over all of Baltimore, won over the state of West Virginia, won over the NFL scouts, executives and coaches, almost certainly will win over St. Louis, which is a sports-mad community dying for a football hero.
With Austin gone first, the rest of the night seemed to center around when Smith would be selected and by whom — or if he would be taken in the first round.
When the Jets bypassed Smith for Sheldon Richardson, a defensive tackle from Missouri, it appeared as though Smith might not go at all on the first day of the draft, as hard as it is to imagine that in a draft when an offensive tackle from Central Michigan could go as the first overall pick a quarterback from WVU who threw for more than 11,000 yards and 98 career touchdowns was not a first-round selection.
For the first time in years, there was suspense over who the first selection of the draft would be, Kansas City selecting left tackle Eric Fisher from Central Michigan in the MAC.
Once that pick was made, it put Smith and Austin on the clock, for if there was suspense on the No. 1 selection, think what it had to be for those two.
The first team that was thought to be a possible fit for Smith was Philadelphia, which had the fourth pick for first-year coach Chip Kelly out of Oregon.
It didn’t happen.
Kelly followed suit on the run of offensive linemen and picked Oklahoma offensive tackle Lane Johnson.
Minutes later, after the Detroit Lions took Ezekial Ansah from BYU, a player twice cut by the Cougars basketball team who moved to track before taking his first shot at football in 2010, brought the draft to the Cleveland Browns.
This was another team that some thought would go for Smith, but they had defense on the mind and took Barkevious Mingo, a Bruce Irvin clone from LSU at defensive end.
At this point it began looking like Austin might go before Smith, for the New York Jets were said to have their eyes on his ability to make plays, something they had been sadly missing. Coach Rick Ryan had told Austin, “We have plans for you.”
But to get Austin, they would have to survive two picks.
They survived the first pick, but not the second as the Buffalo Bills traded the eighth pick to the Rams, the team that got a great career out of former WVU quarterback Marc Bulger and was smitten with Austin.
“When I went there for my visit I definitely connected well with all of the coaches — Coach (Jeff) Fisher, the GM and everybody — and when they came back to West Virginia to work out we hit it off there, too,” said Austin. “Me and the coaches just clicked, and I’m just thankful for the opportunity that they have given me.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.