WVU's Tavon Austin ready to take next step
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- As a general rule, you can probably disregard anything that follows a player or a coach saying, "If the season were to start tomorrow..." because rarely does the season start the next day.
There are exceptions, of course, and occasions when that must be taken into consideration. Sometimes it actually is said on the eve of the regular season. Other times it's just profound enough that it's not to be dismissed, which leads to West Virginia Coach Bill Stewart.
Tuesday afternoon, only moments after the first spring practice and, for all practical purposes, as far from the beginning of the regular season as possible, Stewart was sorting out depth at wide and slot receiver.
His words were spoken in worried tones, which isn't unusual for Stewart or any coach, but may prove to be if the crop of incoming freshman - Ivan McCartney, Quantavious Leslie, Dante Chambers and Avery Williams - can contribute.
Such is the state of the returnees, though, that on the first day Stewart had junior-to-be Bradley Starks playing one outside position - the Mountaineers call it X - in a green limited-participation jersey and rising sophomore Tavon Austin at the other (Z).
"If the season were to start tomorrow," Stewart said, "Bradley would be our X and Tavon would be our Z."
Starks is 6-foot-3 and a though a victim of numbers at his natural quarterback position when he arrived in 2007, his athleticism and basketball talent made a move to wide receiver natural. He started 10 of his 21 games the past two seasons and totaled 46 receptions for 573 yards and three touchdowns.
Austin, however, is 6 inches smaller and his only experience as a receiver after setting every rushing record worth setting in Baltimore high school football was 15 catches in 13 games as a true freshman last season.
"I'd rather be talented than tall," Austin said. "If you've got a big wide receiver out there and he can't get off the line or he doesn't have a special thing he can do, then he's not going to be able to get the ball. Just like if he catches a hitch and he can't run for a touchdown when he's got five yards of separation, it's kind of hard. The game is slower. We want to be faster."
Size doesn't matter much for the Mountaineers and Austin's abilities achieve the most important goal.
"He can get open and he can get the ball," Stewart said. "We'll always put the best 11 out there."
It's part of a very big spring for Austin. He's a backup slot receiver and the backup running back. If the Mountaineers need a short- or long-term fix for Noel Devine, Stewart said WVU will go with Austin rather than move Jock Sanders to tailback and elevate Austin at slot.
"That way we don't weaken two positions," Stewart said. "We know what Tavon can do."
So much so that Stewart has a plan for after Devine's graduation and said Austin will be the team's tailback next season "as long as he earns it."
Austin was twice Maryland's consensus state player of the year.
He led the Dunbar Poets to three straight Class 1A state titles and set career records for rushing yards (7,962), total offensive yards (9,258), touchdowns (123) and points (790).
Austin has noticeably larger arms and has gained 17 pounds to 173 as preparation for the battles at the line of scrimmage. He hasn't run a timed 40-yard dash since his senior year at Dunbar when he turned in a 4.47, but he figures he's in the low 4.4s. He recently had a 35.5-inch vertical leap, which helps him play a few inches taller.
Put together, it helps the Mountaineers.
The football may find Sanders the most and Devine may find the end zone more than anyone else, but Austin is still the most elusive player. WVU has designs to line him up outside and throw to him on screens and on deep passes.
The future at tailback, his past at that position cannot be forgotten. The skill he shows after he gets the ball is what he uses to set up the reception. If Austin can't get open, he can't catch and run.
"If I was 4 inches taller, I would say I want to play wide receiver because with the same speed and the same talent I've got now, I think I'd be a very good player," he said. "At the same time, I've got the same speed and talent now to be good at it."
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SO CONCERNED are the Mountaineers with depth at receiver, and particularly the outside spots, that rising senior cornerback Eddie Davis was asked to play there.
Davis, a 6-foot, 188-pound native of Tampa, Fla., came to WVU as a running back and had 65 yards on 15 carries in his first college game in 2007, but also suffered a foot injury in the game that ended his season. He ended up taking a medical redshirt and played wide receiver the following season.
"He runs," Offensive Coordinator Jeff Mullen said following Tuesday's practice. "Fast Eddie definitely can take the top off a coverage. I noticed that immediately. He brings an instinct that helps on that side of the ball, which helps because clearly we don't have a lot of options there."
When the new coaching staff took over prior to the start of the 2008 season, Davis was asked to move to cornerback to address depth worries there. He played in 17 games the past two seasons, including all 13 last season when he was a backup and a key special teams player. Davis finished with eight tackles.
"It's the best thing for the team," said cornerbacks coach David Lockwood, who only has seven cornerbacks now for spring practice. "He started over there, so it wasn't like something totally new for him. You look at our guys (cornerbacks) when you look at guys who have a chance (on offense). Eddie's one of best the best athletes on our football team and one of our fastest guys and we're fortunate enough he gives us a luxury to try him here and there."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.