West Virginia's Austin finds new role as receiver

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Tavon Austin is a wide receiver now.

Forget what the past says about his exploits as a running back and forget about what the future was supposed to hold for him at that position.

The present -- and, more to the point, his performance in Friday's Backyard Brawl victory for West Virginia -- dictates the sophomore is, and will be, a wide receiver for these Mountaineers.

He says so.

And, more important, West Virginia coach Bill Stewart says so.

Going into this season, the plan was well-defined for the kid from Baltimore who rushed for almost 8,000 yards in high school, the most in that state's high school football history.

He was supposed to play receiver this season (and this season only) as he waited his turn behind senior Noel Devine as the Mountaineers' feature back.

But Friday, as he dashed through Pitt's beleaguered secondary for a 71-yard touchdown in the third quarter, then caught a back-shoulder touchdown from 12 yards later in the quarter, everything came into focus.

"All of a sudden here comes that little flash out of the backside," Stewart said of the 5-foot-9, 173-pound Austin. "And I said, 'Oh man.' "

Oh man, did West Virginia ever find a feature receiver.

And, oh man, did a wrench get put into the plans to move him back to running back next season.

"He's too valuable out there as a little water bug," Stewart said. "They can't catch him when he hits that seam. I think the bigger backs [such as sophomore Shawne Alston] I'm starting to like more, and I'll keep Tavon out there.

"He wants to stay out there. He's the one who gave me the nudging, said, 'I like where I am coach.' "

How could Austin not like it?

He caught just two passes Friday on that chewed-up, green-and-brown lawn at Heinz Field and both went for scores. On the first, a 71-yard flash through the middle that made it 21-7, he left Antwuan Reed chasing him; on the second, that 12-yarder, he forced the score to 28-10 and some Pitt fans to the exits.

All this and, as Austin said, before he showed up in Morgantown: "I never played wide receiver a day in my life. But if they want me to stay out there, I'll stay out there."

Yes, they want him to stay out there.

That's what happens when you shine in the Backyard Brawl and become a viable game-changer in an offense.

The coaches understood just how much of a difference-maker they had when he showed up on campus.

"We gave the right guy No. 1," offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen said of the number on Austin's jersey, which Reed saw the back of as he tried to catch him to no avail.

A softspoken kid who runs a 4.4 40-yard dash, Austin admitted, with a little prodding, that something in the pregame ignited him in an unusual way.

About a half-hour before Friday's kickoff, West Virginia senior defensive tackle Chris Neild and Pitt senior offensive lineman Jason Pinkston staged a shouting match at midfield. They needed to be separated by coaches from both sides before the shouts could progress to blows.

"I wasn't involved in it, I ran right past it," Austin said.

When pressed, Austin said of Pinkston, "He came across and said something.

"But I knew I had to be focused, I had to stay focused. If you just close your mouth and make some plays, they won't talk for long. But if you open your mouth and you ain't making plays, you give them the right to say something."

At Heinz Field on Friday, Pitt didn't have a right to say anything to Austin.

Colin Dunlap: cdunlap@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1459.


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