In Dana Holgorsen's offense, downfield passing is certainly a major part of the air attack, but it's by no means the only way to make use of players that can blow by defenders. Junior Tavon Austin learned that lesson during West Virginia's spring football practices, and taken it to heart. In fact, it made such an impression that some of those twists are now his favorite parts of the offense.
"I like coming across the middle on those shallow routes," said Austin, who uses his quickness to great advantage on those crossing routes. "I can get the ball really quickly and do what I can do."
The soft-spoken Austin isn't one given to bragging, but the reality is that he can do quite a lot in West Virginia's passing game. He was already a deep threat, having recorded scoring catches of 71 and 58 yards over the past two years, but his liking for some of the different routes in this year's attack figure to make him even more dangerous.
On these routes, the slot receiver will run a very shallow cross – sometimes only a yard or two past the line of scrimmage. One of the benefits of this is that defensive backs can get picked off by linebackers in coverage, thus allowing the receiver the chance to catch the ball on the run without pressure. Once the catch is made, the receiver has a full head of steam, and has the chance to move past less speedy defenders in the open field.
The sight of Austin catching passes cutting across the grain of the defense was a common one this spring, and on more than one occasion he was able to turn the ball up the field, squirt between or speed past tacklers, and record a big play.
Austin also likes the occasional running play that is called for him, as it brings him back to his high school days.
"When I get the ball on a reverse I feel like I'm back at running back – like I'm back at Dunbar," he said with a smile. "That gives me some excitement."
Austin can obviously make use of his speed on that series of plays as well – and that's the thing he likes the most about the new system.
"[In this offense] being able to use my speed, and getting the right play calls have been the things I've liked the most," Austin said. "Coach Holgorsen has been able to make the right call at the right time."
Although he's certainly found a comfort zone in the attack (he had five catches for 83 yards and a score in the Gold-Blue game to cap an excellent spring performance), he also acknowledged that there is still improvement to be made. In that assessment, he concurred with quarterback Geno Smith, who said the West Virginia offense was still at "stage one" in terms of efficiency.
"I've improved my route running and my blocking this spring," Austin noted. "Last year I was just chop blocking, but this year I can stand up and block the boys. Geno is the leader, so if he feels we are at stage one, then we're at stage one. I know we still line up late and don't get the first signal all the time. There was a lot of progress over the spring. At the start, a lot of the time the offense looked like trash, but we are picking it up now. It's still not all the way there, but we are definitely picking it up."
The loss of senior Bradley Starks to shoulder surgery affected that progress somewhat, but Austin said that the receiving corps was prepared to fill in. Stedman Bailey did an outstanding job of moving to the outside receiver position, and that helped at least cover for Starks' absence.
"We've played multiple positions before, so we were ready for it," Austin said of the switch. "When [Starks] went down we were ready to step in to the spot and do the job. Everybody gets a chance in this offense."