Aug 24, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; St. Louis Rams wide receiver Tavon Austin (11) runs for a gain during a kickoff against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field . Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Tavon Austin preseason favorite for 2013 NFL Rookie of the Year

Before he’d ever coached a down at West Virginia, athletic director Oliver Luck made it clear to Dana Holgorsen that he needed to get Tavon Austin the ball. It didn’t matter that at 5-8 174 lbs. Austin was always only one failed jet sweep or rocket screen from being crushed by the behemoths that patrol every defense’s interior, only that Holgorsen got the ball into Tavon Austin’s dynamic little hands as much as humanly possible.

By the time he was a senior, Tavon Austin was getting touches in every conceivable way: in the slot (114 receptions for 1,289 yards), out of the backfield (72 carries for 643 yards), in the punt return game (15 returns for 165 yards and a score) and in the kick return game (33 returns for 813 yards and a score). All totaled, Austin touched the ball 234 times for 2,910 all-purpose yards and 17 touchdowns.

Yet, despite that kind of production, people in the NFL still had their concerns. They were the same concerns folks have always had for Tavon Austin–the same concerns that Austin had proven a moot point as a star at Dunbar High School in Baltimore, MD, and then again in Morgantown.

However, once again, as teams questioned if Austin was big enough or durable enough to hack it in the NFL, Austin continued to surprise. He never missed a game in high school or college, and despite being the smallest man on virtually every field he’s ever set foot on, he’s earned a reputation as a playmaker.

When he ran a 4.34 40 at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine, size somehow became less of an issue. Funny how that works.

Regardless, finally, people started focusing on the playmaking ability.

Tavon Austin is electric in an “Energizer Bunny standing in a puddle, holding a metal rod during a lightning storm” kind of way and he’s about to take the NFL by siege. He’s considered the favorite by oddsmakers to win the 2013 NFL Rookie of the Year Award, and it’s hard not to like those chances provided he gets the touches.

After all, the hardest thing about having Tavon Austin has been finding ways to get the ball into his hands in space.

However, with St. Louis saying goodbye to Danny Amendola this offseason, Tavon Austin is already the man for the Rams. And, much like Luck told Holgorsen in 2010, second-year general manager Les Snead has made it relatively clear that he expects head coach Jeff Fisher and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to find ways to get the ball into Austin’s hands.

Armed with the No. 16 overall pick and the No. 22 overall pick heading into April’s 2013 NFL Draft, Snead identified Tavon Austin as his most coveted prize, and as Austin’s draft stock continued to rise, Snead worked the phone lines to make sure he could maneuver. When it looked as if the New York Jets were certain to scoop Tavon up at No. 9, Snead leveraged his No. 16, second and seventh-round picks (while also swapping third round picks) with the Buffalo Bills to get him at No. 8.

Now, the expectations of Austin–having leveraged so much to acquire the futuristic talent–is for him to be an immediate centerpiece of this rebuilding offense. That’s a big role for such a small man, but if anyone has proven that they’re up to the task of filling shoes that may look four sizes to big, it’s been Austin.

When Tavon Austin arrived at West Virginia, he was supposed to be the heir apparent to former West Virginia star/YouTube sensation (and fellow little man) Noel Devine. By the time he graduated, Austin had etched his name right alongside Devine’s in the annals of West Virginia history.

However, now Tavon Austin faces his biggest challenge yet. Through the first two preseason games, his role was muted, as Jeff Fisher seems content with letting his exact role in St. Louis’ offense remain somewhat of a mystery.

We know he’ll return kicks (like the 81-yard return he unleashed in his last game). We know that he’ll catch passes.

We assume he’ll take handoffs out of the backfield, and, hell, he may even take a few direct snaps.

Yet, it’s not really about how Tavon Austin gets the football into his hands, it’s about how often. If Jeff Fisher and Brian Schottenheimer can do it as frequently as everyone hopes, it may end in hardware for Austin.

Maybe then Tavon Austin can collect his 2013 NFL Rookie of the Year Award on a jet sweep. It’d only be fitting.

Tags: St. Louis Rams Tavon Austin

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