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Harris: West Virginia star Austin the real deal

| Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Tribune-Review
West Virginia Mountaineers punt returner Tavon Austin (1) eludes TCU Horned Frogs defenders B.J. Catalon (23) and Jonathan Anderson (41) to score on a 76 yard punt return for a 4th quarter touchdown at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown, WV on November 03 , 2012. Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review

Pound for pound, West Virginia senior receiver/running back/return specialist Tavon Austin is the best college football player in 2012.

Austin won't win the Heisman Trophy. He won't even be invited to New York for the ceremony.

One teammate, quarterback Geno Smith, was considered the Heisman frontrunner earlier this season. Another teammate, Stedman Bailey, was selected over Austin as a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award honoring the nation's top receiver.

Despite these oversights, Austin's senior year at West Virginia will go down as one of the best ever.

Austin is a gifted, hard-working receiver who's an even better kick returner. He changed positions in college after setting Maryland state records in career points, touchdowns and rushing yards while leading Dunbar High in Baltimore to three consecutive state championships.

“It's amazing,” Smith said in describing Austin. “The most dynamic player in college football with the ball in his hands.''

Austin is the NCAA active career leader in receptions and all-purpose yards. He's third among active career leaders in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, and seventh in kickoff returns.

As for being overlooked for the Biletnikoff Award, Austin leads the nation with 106 receptions this season. He's No. 8 in receiving yards with 104.5 per game.

When coach Dana Holgorsen needed to revitalize the running game two weeks ago, he handed the ball to Austin, who rushed for a school-record 344 yards on 21 carries against Oklahoma.

“I wish we could clone him and put three of him out there,” Holgorsen said.

It isn't Austin's fault that WVU's defense couldn't hold a 49-44 lead in a 50-49 loss to the Sooners, just like it wasn't Austin's fault the Mountaineers couldn't protect a 38-31 lead in their 39-38 double-overtime loss to TCU the previous week, a game in which Austin returned a punt for a touchdown.

WVU ranks No. 117 out of 120 teams in scoring defense, one of four teams yielding more than 40 points per game (40.6). If WVU's defense was merely average — the Mountaineers' potent offense produces 40 points per game — there's no telling how many national awards Austin would receive.

In WVU's 31-24 win at Iowa State on Saturday, Austin scored the game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter when he caught Smith's short toss and sprinted 75 yards down the sideline. That gave him at least one touchdown in each of the last five games and raised his season total to 15.

“For him to constantly, week in and week out, give us that spark we need, put the team on his shoulders and come up in the clutch speaks volumes about what kind of player he is,” Smith said.

Austin has a penchant for making big plays. There have been games this year where he literally ran away from Big 12 Conference players in a league filled with NFL-caliber talent.

Austin's 4.28 speed in the 40 — along with underrated toughness for his size — translates into him projecting as a high draft pick.

Austin is small in stature — 5-foot-9, 171 pounds — but he plays big. He lines up inside at slot receiver where there's plenty of traffic. However, he displays no aversion running between the tackles when he lines up in the backfield, although he wouldn't be an every down running back at the next level.

The Steelers — who are struggling offensively and need an injection of toughness among their skill players — might be a potential destination for Austin.

Steelers scouts were regular visitors at West Virginia games this season. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert attended WVU's home game against Oklahoma on Nov. 17.

“Much like Carolina's Steve Smith, once (Austin) gets the ball in his hands, he becomes the most dangerous weapon on the field,” wrote Dave-Te' Thomas of Scouting Services Inc., who predicted stardom for emerging San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick when he was still in college.

Thomas also wrote that Austin “is fearless going for the ball in traffic and will sacrifice himself without hesitation to make the play. He will perform through pain. Austin is a good worker on the field and in the weight room who never quits and is always pushing himself. He leads by his work ethic and dedication. He takes pride in his ability as a playmaker and will do whatever the coaches ask.”

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jharris@tribweb.com.

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