Blazing into the first round?
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - One of the most intriguing names in the NFL draft that begins tonight in New York belongs to a player from West Virginia who rewrote many of the school's offensive records.
And no, it's not Geno Smith.
Well, yes, Smith is intriguing in his own right. Considered the top available quarterback, he would become the first Mountaineer QB to be drafted in the first round. That is, if he's drafted in tonight's first round. Mock drafts are all over the board regarding his position, ranging from a top-five pick to a slip into the second round.
Almost everyone is agreed, though, that Tavon Austin's name will be called in tonight's first round. And that despite being undersized and, as recently as two months ago, considered no better than second- or third-round material.
What happened to change that? Well, Austin's performance at the NFL Combine, where he ran a blistering 4.34 40-yard dash.
"The Combine pretty much changed my whole life,'' Austin said.
Throw in the versatility he showed at West Virginia as a receiver, running back and kick returner and NFL teams seem to be intrigued. While most projections have him going in the 10-15 range in the first round, there was significant buzz in Philadelphia this week about new Eagles coach Chip Kelly taking him at No. 4.
That could just be buzz or smokescreen - and there's a ton of both regarding every draft - but Austin seems to have generated a lot of interest, despite his 5-foot-8 stature.
None of that surprises Dana Holgorsen.
"That's what college football has been about,'' Holgorsen said, referring to a rapid shift toward open-field playmakers. "And that's what you see the NFL kind of going to a little bit.''
Austin did a little bit of everything at West Virginia. Last season he led the nation in all-purpose yards - 1,289 receiving, 643 rushing and 978 on returns. He was 6 yards short of an all-time NCAA record with 572 all-purpose yards in a game against Oklahoma.
"He fits the profile,'' Holgorsen said. "He fits the spread offense, dynamic playmaker guy that can also do some return-game stuff. So it's not surprising to me to see him climb the charts. He's the type of kid that the more you're around him, the more time you spend with him the more you fall in love with him and want him on your football team.''
Smith, who threw almost all of the 288 passes Austin caught in four years at WVU, certainly sees something in the little receiver.
"When you talk about playmakers, he's No. 1 in my eyes,'' Smith said Wednesday at an NFL draft event in New York. "The things you see him do on the field are uncanny. You don't see a lot of guys do what he can do every Saturday - or even Sundays.''
Playing in the NFL at 5-8 isn't unheard of, but it is rare. Darren Sproles is 5-6 and broke the league record for all-purpose yards in 2011. Trindon Holliday became the first NFL player ever to return a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown in a playoff game, doing it for Denver against Baltimore in January. He's 5-6.
So if nothing else, Austin would seem to have a future as a returner. But in order to be taken in the first round he has to have the potential to do more than that. A lot of teams seem to feel he does.
"Tavon fits a whole bunch of offenses,'' Holgorsen said. "But when you think of the up-tempo offenses, the spread offenses that have infiltrated college football over the last decade, that's the type of guy you think about. You think about a slot guy that is dynamic with the ball in his hands and you can move him around and get him the ball in a variety of ways.''
The draft begins with tonight's first round. The second are third rounds are on Friday night and the remaining four rounds are on Saturday. Former WVU wide receiver Stedman Bailey is projected to go in the first half of the draft, but not likely the first round. Several other former Mountaineers could be picked in the later rounds and as many as 10 to 15 all told could find themselves drafted or with free agent contracts after the draft.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.