CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Tavon Austin became one of the NFL Draft's most coveted prospects because of his elusiveness. The St. Louis Rams gave up a slew of draft picks to finally corral him.
The Rams are gambling that Austin's 5-foot-8, 174-pound frame can withstand the rigors of four preseason games, 16 regular season games and, they hope, more than a one-and-done playoff experience.
Questions about his size are not new for Austin, who was taken in Thursday's first round (eighth overall) by the Rams.
"That's definitely not going to (ever go away)," Austin said during a conference call. "I just have to keep my heart up, keep my mind right and keep grinding every day in practice. Take care of my body, just keep fighting the critics off like I've been doing since I was young."
History is not on Austin's side.
The former West Virginia University football star was the first skill position player selected in this year's draft, following three offensive tackles, two defensive ends, one offensive guard and one outside linebacker.
That's the latest the first skill player has been drafted since 1985, when Al Toon went to the New York Jets at No. 10.
Austin is listed as a wide receiver, so for research purposes, that's what he is in this column. It sounds like, however, that Austin will be used out of the backfield and on kickoff and punt returns with the Rams.
That's good news for Austin because diminutive NFL utilitymen have a longer shelf life than pass catchers 5-11 or shorter.
Austin is the 52nd receiver ever drafted in the top 10 picks, but only the eighth under 6 feet, zero inches. The others are Lam Jones, Desmond Howard, Joey Galloway, Terry Glenn, Ike Hilliard, Peter Warrick and Ted Ginn Jr.
Only one of those previous seven names - Glenn - made it to a Pro Bowl (1999) at wide receiver. Howard made one Pro Bowl as a return specialist 10 years after the Washington Redskins made him the fourth overall pick. He was out of the league a year later.
Only Glenn and Galloway ever had a 1,000-yard season.
"I can't do anything about it," Austin said. "I would like to change if I could get two inches, but I can't."
Instead, Austin will take one of the fastest 40 times in NFL combine history to a franchise that used to feature the greatest show on turf, and a historic multi-Pro Bowl career could await him.
He could get hurt ... if he gets caught.
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WITH AUSTIN and quarterback Geno Smith, it was all but guaranteed that WVU would have first-round picks in back-to-back drafts for the first time in school history.