Intro: Austin has really emerged in the past few weeks as a dynamic playmaker. Many have taken to calling him Tavon Harvin, alluding to his playmaking ability that reminds many (including myself) of the former Florida Gator, or Tavon Awesome, alluding to the obvious- Tavon Austin is awesome. He is obviously undersized, but he compensates for his lack of size with great speed, elite burst, acceleration, change of direction and impressive vision. He doesn’t have great hands, but when he has the ball in his hands anything can happen. He has made some truly amazing plays and put together some extremely impressive performances this season, and almost single-handedly jump-started the West Virginia offense by balancing the offense when they gave him touches at running back out of the backfield. He’s a dynamic player, and he looks like he has a shot at the 1st round. A creative offensive coordinator could get a lot of mileage out of him, but even in a traditional offense he will make plays on offense and on special teams.
Size: This is one of Austin’s biggest drawbacks as a prospect. He is listed at 5’9” 172 pounds but I wouldn’t be surprised if he measured in at 5’8.” His size is definitely concerning but the way the NFL is changing to protect receivers and essentially eliminate big hits players with Austin’s size will have a better shot at avoiding injury. This is going to be a negative grade from pretty much every scout, but with kick returns being less violent than in previous years Austin should be somewhat protected as a dynamic slot/return man at the next level.
Speed: Austin has sub 4.5 speed without a doubt. I don’t think he’s going to get into the 4.3’s even though it might seem like it at times. He’s in the 4.45-4.48 range if you ask me, but that’s fast enough to outrun angles and rip off big chunks of yardage at the next level. He’s shown that he can take a short reception, a run of the mill carry or any return the distance with his speed. I think it’s one of his strong suits, but I think a lot of people will see his long runs and assume he’s a 4.3 guy. I have to say I’m not convinced of that right now.
Quickness: This is easily the strongest part of Austin’s game. His quickness is something straight out of a video game. He stops and starts on a dime, he gets up to top speed almost instantly, he makes anyone, even quality defenders, look absolutely ridiculous in the open field. He is a very fast athlete so I don’t want this to be taken as an insult, but as fast as he is he is even quicker than he is fast. I actually think that is a very big compliment, because so many fans and teams get wide-eyed looking at very fast 40 times but you can succeed in the NFL without blazing speed, but if you don’t have a certain amount of quickness you will struggle to create separation as a route runner and make people miss in the open field. Austin has quickness in spades and that is clear after you watch one play of him.
Release: I haven’t seen Austin jammed at the line of scrimmage when I’ve watched him, and his lack of size will hurt him when teams attempt to jam him. However, he has more than enough quickness and explosiveness to beat the jam. As I mentioned previously his burst and acceleration is great and that is evident on his release at the snap.
Route Running: Austin can be as good a route runner as he wants thanks to his change of direction ability. I think he runs routes pretty well at this point, but I think there is plenty of room for improvement thanks to his incredible quickness. He ran a lot of quick screens, drag routes and crossing routes at West Virginia and while I think he can run every route in the route tree I think with NFL coaching he can improve this aspect of his game and become a very, very good route runner.
Hands: This is one thing that I think will hold Austin back a little bit. He’s got pretty reliable hands, but he doesn’t make an abundance of catches outside of his frame and he’s not going to snag passes out of the air like receivers with great hands will. He will have concentration lapses every now and again, but his hands are definitely reliable enough to not be considered a negative. He doesn’t have great hands, but they are good enough to be a dangerous option at receiver.
Body Control: Austin has amazing body control when he has the ball in his hands and that is demonstrated consistently in all of his highlight reel runs after the catch or in the return game. He’s a special athlete and this is one of his strengths.
In Traffic: Austin isn’t great in traffic because he doesn’t have the size to shield defenders away from the ball and his lack of size means that plenty of defenders he goes up against will have a size and strength advantage. He will drop a pass in traffic every now and again, and I think there are times when he takes his eye off the ball because he anticipates an oncoming hit. I think that’s why West Virginia worked so hard to get him the ball underneath, in the flat or deep where he wouldn’t be as susceptible to big hits.
YAC: This is one thing that Austin has in absolute spades. I can’t think of many players I’ve ever scouted who are better after the catch than Austin is. He is truly elite after he gets the ball in his hands. I am a big fan of Geno Smith as a prospect, but Austin’s YAC ability has really helped make his stats look better than they are at times and he will continue to do that at the next level as well. He won’t break a lot of tackles thanks to his size, but his amazing quickness keeps defenders off balance and gives him the chance to avoid defenders all together and it helps him encounter more arm tackles that he has the strength to run through.
Blocking: Because Austin is such a focal point of the offense he doesn’t often block so we don’t have a ton to evaluate. As everyone will point out he’s a smaller kid so he’s not going to be able to effectively block some bigger, stronger defenders at the next level. However, when I have seen him block, I saw him give solid effort and sustain fairly well given his size. He’s never going to be a dominant blocker, but that has as much to do with his size as it does the fact that he will consistently have the ball in his hands.
Overall: Tavon Austin is a special player and he definitely reminds me of a smaller Percy Harvin. He doesn’t have Harvin’s insane strength that makes him so rare, but his playmaking ability is comparable and his versatility is certainly similar. Some teams will knock him for his size and wonder if he can hold up at the next level, but as long as he’s not relied upon to be an every down back I don’t think that will be an issue for him. He’s going to be able to get touches out of the backfield as a running back thanks to his vision and burst, he’s going to be a playmaker in the slot and as a return man. His limited range that he presents as a target will hold him back a bit, but he is so versatile and such a dynamic playmaker with the ball in his hands that I think he will have a long, successful NFL career as long as he can stay healthy. I personally believe he will.
Projection: Top 40. I think he has a shot at the 1st round, but if he doesn’t go to a playoff team late in the 1st I think teams desperate for difference makers on offense will jump all over him early in the 2nd round.