WVU football: Move may make Austin more dangerous
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Tavon Austin set a West Virginia University record for receptions last season, turning 101 catches into 1,186 yards and eight touchdowns. He was good enough to make every preseason watch list for receivers and the Big 12's all-conference team this summer.
He might be better in 2012.
At least, that was the intent behind a subtle, yet significant coaching decision that went virtually unnoticed in the spring and appears to be here to stay.
Austin played last season inside at the "H" spot in Coach Dana Holgorsen's offense. When the depth chart before April's spring game came out and was followed last week by the depth chart in the team's official guide, Austin no longer was there.
He was instead at the other inside spot, the "Y," where Tyler Urban and Devon Brown played last season and where Austin was Thursday as the Mountaineers opened preseason camp at Mountaineer Field.
"I noticed that I definitely didn't catch as many passes last spring as I did this past spring," Austin said.
"It seems like there are some better plays, too."
By his nature, Holgorsen is inclined to tiptoe around the topic and insist "it's not a big deal." Yet when the Mountaineers looked back at 2011 and things they could make better in the spring, it was agreed that the team's best offensive player needed a new position.
"We got him closer to the ball now," Holgorsen said. "The guys that are closest to the ball touch the ball the most."
The "Y" has been the most important receiver position in Holgorsen's offense through the years and moving Austin figures to continue that trend. It keeps Austin on the field and makes the most of his gifts.
The "X" and the "Z" are outside positions and when WVU went with two running backs and three receivers last season, the "Y" was typically on the field while Austin was on the sideline.
As the "Y," he would be on the field more, but also in more advantageous situations.
"Just from being in the offense a whole year, I see where the ball goes and last year those guys got the ball a lot on some good routes," Austin said.
"The 'Y' had Tyler and Devon lined up against one person at different times and they'd have just that one person, but couldn't make him miss. I feel like, putting me in that position, I can catch the ball and make that one person miss."
WVU can hope Austin finds one-on-one matchups or WVU can facilitate them by motioning the outside receiver on that side, the "Z," to the opposite side to leave Austin isolated.
The Mountaineers use a number of four-receiver sets with two on each side, but will test the defense by putting three receivers on one side. When that happens, Austin is the receiver closest to Smith, instead of the one between that receiver and the outside receiver on that side in the formation.
Those sets allow for one running back, though, and Holgorsen has grown to like other ideas through the years. He features a two-back set more now and in 2010 introduced the three-back diamond formation with one back to each side of the quarterback and one behind him.
Each formation allows for fewer receivers, but Austin would be on the field as the "Y" in the two-back set.
Teammates said there are designs where Austin and Stedman Bailey are outside receivers when WVU is in the diamond.
"It's really about using him in every way we can and then using that to help the offense," Bailey said.
The move, if it sticks, could also make life easier on Bailey. A year ago he set the school record with 1,279 yards as the "X" receiver. He's playing the same position, but the "X" lines up next to the "H." Austin's move means he and Bailey won't be on the same side of the field very often and not when WVU uses more than two receivers.
"Last year I saw the defenses put their best two cover guys on us and cheat a safety over top to watch us both," Bailey said. "I'm quite sure this will open the field and create more space with me on one side and Tavon on the other."
Bailey and Austin did well with receptions and yardage in most games last season, but the "Y" position wasn't terribly effective, even with defenses scheming against Bailey and Austin, until the Orange Bowl.
Brown and Willie Milhouse, playing for an injured Urban, totaled eight catches for 142 yards and a touchdown. That freed up Austin for 12 receptions for 123 yards and four touchdowns.
If Austin produces like Brown and Milhouse did in the bowl, which is what Holgorsen anticipates by making the move, that would elevate the roles for the "H" receivers. For now, that's senior J.D. Woods and freshman Jordan Thompson.
"Honestly," Bailey said, "I just feel like this offense has something for everything. Every coverage a person could come up with we have a play for. I'm really and truly not sure how teams are going to come out and defend us. As long as we come out and put together a complete game, the offense is going to be very hard to stop."