The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

November 27, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN - Austin’s big game lays out future

PITTSBURGH — The master plan, back a couple of years ago when West Virginia University snatched Tavon Austin out of Baltimore, was that he would be the next in a long line of dominating Mountaineer running backs.

It goes back further than this, of course, but when writing modern Mountaineer history you begin with Amos Zeroue’s first carry as a collegian, a 61-yard touchdown run against Pitt, and go from there through Avon Cobourne and Quincy Wilson and K.J. Harris and Steve Slaton and Noel Devine.

Austin was penciled in as the next great one, and why not?

In Baltimore he owns Maryland state records for career points with 790, touchdowns with 123, rushing yards with 7,962 and total offense with 9,258 yards. The only thing that could stop him in high school was the end zone.

But as they say, the best laid plans …

While waiting for Devine to depart, the Mountaineer coaches knew that they could not just let a talent like Austin’s sit around as a backup, so they primed him as a wide receiver.

Who knew that was where his future would lie?

But on a cold and clear Friday, deep in the part of enemy territory known as Heinz Field, Austin’s entire outlook on football would change as he caught two passes — each a touchdown, one of them the season’s longest gain of 73 yards — as West Virginia came out and buried a favored Pitt team, 35-10, in the 103rd renewal of the Backyard Brawl.

With the development of Shawne Alston, a big back with a bigger future, Austin suddenly is being looked upon as not the next Zereoue, Slaton or Cobourne, but as the next Jock Sanders, who on Friday set the school record for career receptions as he roared past David Saunders with four catches to give him 195 as a Mountaineer.

In the postgame press meeting between a media that was somewhat stunned by the results of the day and coach Bill Stewart, the coach was asked if he possibly could be reconsidering Austin’s future.

This sly, knowing smile crossed Stewart’s face, as if asking the questioner, “Are you reading my mind?”

Yes, he admitted, he is not only thinking that way, he’s talked it over with Austin, and Austin is a wide receiver now and forever.

“He’s too valuable out there as a little water bug,” Stewart said, the imagery being close to perfect for Austin is the quickest thing you’ve ever seen making cuts. “You can’t tackle that little fellow in a telephone booth. Out in space, he’s tough.”

Indeed, Austin caught 47 passes this season, which is 12 fewer than Sanders, but with his 83 yards against Pitt, he has accounted for 636 yards, high on the team, and seven touchdowns. That’s one fewer touchdowns than opponents have scored passing on WVU in 11 games.

Austin’s touchdowns against Pitt were special, the 71-yard connection with Geno Smith on a post pattern where he left the defender in his tracks and the other being a play in the corner of the end zone where he was covered but outleaped the defender.

Austin, by the way, is 5-foot-9.

“I want to stay at wide receiver,” Austin would admit after the game.

It’s this thing about being out there in space that gets to him, almost like he’s an astronaut.

That and the fact that he doesn’t take too many hits.

It’s true that at 173 pounds he might not prove to be the most durable of running backs if were to play there, but at wide receiver no one seems to get a clear shot at him.

Of course, there is another point that Sanders makes, a point that must be taken into consideration.

“It would be wrong to limit his touches,” Sanders said. “Not with the things he can do.”

As it was, Austin touched the ball only three times in this game, two catches for 10 and 71 yards and one carry for 12.

Thinking of him running 15 times and catching eight passes out of the backfield does seem tempting, to be certain.

Stewart, however, believes he can get him some touches as a runner on reverses and lining up in the backfield at times as Sanders does while being a threat out wide.

“I always have liked a big back,” Stewart admitted.

And that is Alston, who stands only 5-11 but packs 222 pounds and who has shown an ability to go inside and outside. In fact, put him back there with 240-pound fullback Ryan Clarke and you have a big backfield with Austin joining receivers like Stedman Bailey, Bradley Starks and Ivan McCartney next year to make for an explosive and powerful offense.

With this victory over Pitt and a game left with hapless Rutgers, it appears the Mountaineers are in for another 9-victory regular season and that should put aside any doubt about Stewart’s job security, so it only makes sense that he now makes plans for the future.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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