He had all the makings of a once-in-a-generation star — a first-of-his-kind receiver-slash-returner-slash-weaponized game-changer who could cut on a dime and score from anywhere on the field, at any time. Tavon Austin was unlike anything the Rams had seen before. They fell in love with that mystifying potential, drafting him eighth overall in 2013, 19 picks ahead of future Pro Bowler DeAndre Hopkins, and for four years, team officials foretold of Austin’s breakout, even as his role remained in constant flux.
By last August, Austin had yet to tally 500 receiving yards in a season or average more than three catches per game. Still, the Rams believed — so much so, that they pushed their chips to the center of the table, betting big on the unfulfilled promise of their pint-sized playmaker.
With a year left on his rookie contract, the Rams signed Austin to a 4-year, $42-million extension. The deal raised eyebrows around the NFL, as it made Austin one of the league’s highest-paid receivers. In 2017, his salary cap hit exceeds the likes of perennial All-Pros Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, and A.J. Green.
That gamble — so far, at least — has been a bust. Former coach Jeff Fisher predicted Austin would reach 100 catches last season, but he reeled in just 58 — many of them at or near the line of scrimmage. Austin’s 10 touchdowns from 2015 plummeted to four.
This season, as Sean McVay replaced Fisher and new weapons were added to a more explosive offense, the team’s highest-paid offensive player has barely seen the field. Through one month, Austin has just two catches for five yards. He’s played 18 percent of the Rams’ offensive snaps, 46 total — three fewer than rookie Cooper Kupp saw last week alone. Just over a year from his massive extension, doubts about Austin’s role — and his future with the team — are already being raised.
But in recent weeks, as the Rams offense has come out of nowhere to become one of the NFL’s best, an answer may finally be emerging to a question that has long confounded the franchise.
How exactly do you unlock Tavon Austin? It may be as simple as going back to his roots.
Bob Stoops had never seen anything like it before.
“I’ve seen a lot of the greats, the Barry Sanders of the world … but no running back can do what that guy did,” the longtime Oklahoma coach told reporters at the time. It was Nov. 2012, and a struggling West Virginia had taken his Sooners to the brink of an upset, 50-49, thanks entirely to a 5-foot-8 running back who hadn’t played the position since high school.
To see Tavon Austin that day was to witness one of the single-most electrifying performances in college football history — 344 yards on 21 carries, all in a flurry of dizzying stutter steps and razor-sharp cuts that defied physics and singlehandedly cemented Austin’s reputation as one of football’s most explosive talents.
From childhood, Austin envisioned himself as a running back. At Dunbar High School, in Baltimore, he was as slippery as any player in Maryland preps history. Impossible to take down, he rushed for 2,660 yards and 34 touchdowns as a senior.
West Virginia was the only place offering to give him a shot in the backfield. So he signed with the Mountaineers over North Carolina, which wanted him at receiver. But, as Austin recalled years later, “I was lied to.” His coaches asked him soon after he arrived to switch to wideout.
“I was very upset about it at the time.” Austin says. “But it paid off.”
After that narrow loss to Oklahoma, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen admitted his mistake: “We probably should have done this four years ago,” he said.
Austin still considers running back is his “natural position”. With a few practice reps, he says, he’d be “back at home”. But since that historic Big 12 showdown, the Rams’ diminutive speed demon has only moonlighted as a ballcarrier. He’s never received more than eight carries in a game.
But was he capable of more? For years, Fisher toyed with the possibility of Austin as a part-time running back, even giving him 52 carries during the 2015 season. Yet under Fisher’s tutelage, Austin never developed beyond the role of a gadget player, utilized in the same hyper-specific ways.
When McVay first arrived, he envisioned a different role entirely. Austin was billed as the deep threat in McVay’s offense, set to play the same role DeSean Jackson did in Washington. Nevermind the fact that Austin was asked to run only a handful of vertical routes over four years; only 15 times had he caught passes 15 or more yards down the field.
That plan lasted only a few weeks into camp. As Austin dealt with injuries to his wrist and his hamstring, the Rams traded for Sammy Watkins. Coaches still praised Austin’s talent and publicly promised him opportunity, but the reality of the situation seemed far more bleak.
Austin was a $10-million player without a role.
“We’re going to have to brainstorm some ways to utilize Tavon,” McVay said at the end of August.
It started with a jet sweep.
It was hardly an original idea. Austin had been used on jet sweeps before, with moderate success. But as Austin sprinted in motion and took a first-quarter handoff in Week 1, scampering to the sideline for a 9-yard gain, the wheels began to turn.
In the weeks that followed, McVay admitted the Rams staff was “still feeling out” Austin’s role. He played sparingly. But the seeds planted by that jet sweep soon began to bear fruit. Suddenly, linebackers were shifting to account for Austin as a ballcarrier. So McVay used him as a decoy, springing running back Todd Gurley for multiple long gains in successive weeks.
“Without Tavon,” Gurley said, “that’s the extra defender being there, or extra two defenders being there.”
In a statement road win over the Cowboys, McVay added yet another wrinkle to a play that was already confounding defenses. Early in the second quarter, Austin, lined up on the right side. He came in motion, suggesting a jet sweep, but shuffled past Jared Goff to the left. Suddenly, a split-second before the ball was snapped, Austin planted his foot and changed direction, sprinting right, just in time for Goff to hand it off on a sort of reverse jet sweep. The defense bit on a subsequent fake to Gurley, and Austin stutter-stepped past a defender for a 7-yard gain. Later in the game, with a similar setup, Goff faked to Austin and handed off to Gurley.
Austin could be a crucial part of that offensive innovation going forward. He carried the ball six times for 46 yards in Dallas, with four of those carries coming from the backfield as a traditional running back. And in the weeks to come, it’s possible he takes a more active role in the run game as the Rams try to keep Gurley fresh down the stretch.
“When you put him in that home position, he’s got natural run instincts,” McVay said. “So anytime that you have a moveable piece like Tavon is for our offense right now, I think you can expect to see his role to continue to grow as he gets more comfortable.”
McVay’s offense changes constantly, so how often Austin will be used going forward remains to be seen. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll live up to the expectations that come with such a large contract. Cutting him this offseason — to save $3 million in cap space — is still a possibility.
But for the moment, Austin is pleased with his current role. He respects that McVay is “building it, but going slowly,” and he understands injuries have hampered how quickly he was integrated into the offense.
“I ain’t all the way Tay Austin yet,” he admits. “Hopefully by midseason, he’ll know I’m ready to rock.”
By then, who knows what Austin’s role might be. Receiver, running back, offensive weapon, gadget player, decoy — Austin has never been one to define his skillset.
In his heart, he says, he has always been a running back. But even in that role, he’ll admit, even Tavon Austin has his limitations.
“If I touched that ball (as a running back) 20 times per game, it may be my last season,” he said, through a grin.