WVU's Austin puts stamp on returns
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The most soft-spoken player on the West Virginia football team speaks loudly in the return game.
Tavon Austin, statistically the best punt-returner in the Big East Conference, is a legitimate game-breaker expected to help lead the battle for field position Friday in the Backyard Brawl.
"When I catch the ball, I just hope I see a hole," said Austin. "When I see it, I hit it. Hopefully, my teammates make a key block."
Special-teams play has been up and down this season for the Mountaineers, but the return game generally has been solid. Austin is a big reason why.
As fast as he is cagey, Austin has the ability to turn on a dime, elude tacklers, and gain yardage in situations that sometimes do not seem plausible.
He leads the Big East in punt-return average with 14.8 yards and ranks No. 2 in kick-return average with 25.2 yards.
Both put him among the country's elite -- No. 7 in punt-return average and No. 31 in kick-return average.
"We work on it so much in practice," said Austin.
It is a part of the West Virginia game plan sure to test Pitt coach Todd Graham's coverage units Friday night.
Austin's playmaking ability as a receiver has been well-documented. He's ranked No. 2 in the nation in all-purpose yards with an average of 196.4 yards a game.
He opened the season with a 100-yard kickoff return against Marshall for a touchdown, setting his bar pretty high.
Receiver Brad Starks helped return kickoffs before getting hurt, as have receiver Devon Brown and defensive back Broderick Jenkins. But Austin makes the return game go.
As a return specialist, he has struggled at times, letting several punts roll that should have been fielded.
"At the beginning of the season, I jumped out and then, toward the middle of the season, went down a little bit," said Austin. "At the end of the season, I picked it back up, so I've got to thank coaches and players for picking up key blocks."
In his previous game, Austin averaged 16.6 yards on three punt returns at Cincinnati and 22.3 yards for three kickoff returns.
How will Graham and Pitt counter the West Virginia return game?
"We have a plan each game and we have pretty much been just kicking the ball off deep. We probably won't do a whole lot different," Graham said.
NOTES -- Wide receiver Stedman Bailey is 7 yards away from breaking the single-season receiving record at West Virginia. The current record is held by David Saunders, set in 1996 at 1,043 yards. ... Tickets still remain for the Friday Backyard Brawl. They can be ordered online at WVUGAME.com, or by calling 1-800-WVU GAME.
First Published November 23, 2011 12:00 am