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August 19, 2013

Looking Back: Tavon Austin




Tavon Austin is a football player that has always just had "it," regardless of how you define what exactly "it," is.

Sometimes you just have a feeling that a player will impact a program from the minute they announce their commitment and Austin was one of those when he tabbed West Virginia as his college choice in early January of his senior season.

From his record-setting prep days in Baltimore at Dunbar High School to his incredible career in Morgantown, Austin has always had a knack for forcing fans to hold their breath every time he touched the football. His highly-contested recruitment also invoked the same reaction for many in gold and blue, although for different reasons.

Austin's recruitment began early picking up his first offer from in-state Maryland during his sophomore season and then adding Boston College in September of his junior season. By year's end, Austin was named the Baltimore player of the year for the second straight season after leading Dunbar High School to its second consecutive state championship.

He then participated in the Army All-American Combine in San Antonio, an event for juniors who are likely to be invited to the next year's Army All-American Game.

West Virginia entered the picture for the soft-spoken talent after a junior day visit in March the following year and immediately moved to the top Mountaineers assistant coach Lonnie Galloway's wish list.

Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel also played a vital role early in the process.

"I liked it. They looked good in practice and showed us around. It left a good impression of their school," Austin was quoted after that initial visit.

As Austin's star continued to grow, adding offers from Georgia, Penn State, Michigan, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina, so did the pursuit of the Mountaineers. The Charm City standout took several more unofficial visits to Penn State, Maryland, Virginia and Rutgers before the weekend that would change the scope of his recruitment.

June 27-29, Austin traveled to Morgantown along with six of his teammates to participate in the Mountaineers 7-on-7 camp. Galloway would set his sights on the talented all-purpose running back and could be seen with him and his teammates throughout the two-day event according to former WVSports.com senior writer Jim Laise.

"He really worked that camp. He was with him for every game and he was significant because he put a lot of time into all of those kids," Laise said.

The Poets would go on to win that 7-on-7 tournament and Austin would remain on campus for the Gold Rush prospect camp, but didn't participate. And the seeds had been sewn for the Mountaineers to make a move up his list and once his senior season begin Austin was eventually able to cut his list of programs to four: West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and Michigan.

The 5-foot-9, 160-pounder was viewed as a game-changer within the Puskar Center and the coaches hosted Austin once again during his senior season for the homecoming game against Syracuse the weekend of Oct. 10, 2008.

"It is just a college town," he said. "I really like the college town, the coaches the player and the school, it's really just a perfect fit for me with that offense."

By the end of his senior season, Austin would become the state of Maryland's all-time leading rusher (7,947 yards) and touchdown-maker (109) over his four years, as well as a three-time state champion. Laise attended one of his playoff games and what he saw on the field sticks with him as clear as it did during that rainy day in Baltimore.

"He touched the ball seven times and score every time. It was other worldly," he said. "The competition wasn't steep so you wondered if he would do that against better competition but no one ever touched him."

The three-time Baltimore Metro player of the year would go on to play in the first Crab Bowl game in December that year pitting the top prospects from Maryland and Washington, D.C. against one another. By that time, West Virginia had put itself as the leader for Austin but Maryland and North Carolina were still well within reach.

January 6, 2009, the Rivals.com four-star and the nation's No. 13 all-purpose back would end his recruitment with a simple phone call to the coaching staff. No press conference, no formal announcement, just a phone call for one of the most ballyhooed prospects in Maryland history.

"I have been wanting to do it for the longest time. My mother wanted me to make sure this was my choice. A long time ago, I told her WVU was No. 1. The other night, I told her my feelings hadn't changed. She said go ahead and do it. I talked to my Coach (Monday) and he said he was fine with it," Austin said.

A fitting way to end the process for Austin, who is as quiet and reserved off the field as he is talkative and explosive on it.

"It was touch and go, but I think Morgantown and West Virginia really appealed to him because of the stuff that was going on in Baltimore when he was there," Laise said. "He spent a lot of time with his grandmother and she wanted him to get out that area."

Austin would arrive in Morgantown with high expectations and it wouldn't take long for him to capture the attention of those following the program, making amazing plays appear easy. But it wouldn't be until his sophomore season when he earned a full-time role and the next two years that would forever cement his name in West Virginia history.

As part of a battery that included Geno Smith and Stedman Bailey, Austin would serve as one of the most explosive playmakers in college football with the ability to take any play and turn it into a highlight reel, while avoiding injury and staying on the field.

In a career full of highlights, Austin would never fall to his home-state Maryland Terrapins and would go on to score four-touchdowns in the 2012 Discover Orange Bowl, flashing his skills for the rest of the country as the Mountaineers would roll to 70-points in the game. Even in defeat, Austin would shine such as this past season's 50-49 loss where the senior would account for a school-record 344 rushing yards and set a Big 12 record with 572 all-purpose yards.

Austin would finish his career with 7,286 all-purpose yards and 40 touchdowns, including becoming the career record holder in receiving yards with 3,413, receptions with 288 and second only behind teammate Bailey

After his career had finished in Morgantown, Austin would go onto Indianapolis for the NFL Combine and post a blazing 4.34 in the 40-yard dash leading to the St. Louis Rams trading with the Buffalo Bills to take Austin with the 8th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. It was the highest West Virginia player taken since Adam Jones was selected with the 6th overall pick in 2005.

Austin definitely has it, indeed.

Jim Laise contributed to this article.

*****

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