Making The Case For Tavon Austin

Mike Wallace is gone, and no one's surprised, so, really, no one's too hurt. At least not now. But what about on that first weekend of September?

Who will replace Wallace in the Steelers' lineup then?

Well, Antonio Brown, by wearing goofy hats on TV and tweeting dumb things, has already stepped into the role of what NFL teams apparently seek in a No. 1 wide receiver.

And, yes, Brown also has enough skill to fill the bill; perhaps even more so than Wallace.

But who will replace Wallace's speed?

Marquise Goodwin of Texas had the fastest time at the combine. He qualified for the last Olympics in the long jump and also ran the 60-meter sprint at Texas.

As a receiver, he's raw. Goodwin caught 116 career passes but scored only 6 touchdowns, so his 4.27 40 at the combine isn't about to qualify him for the first round in next month's draft.

But what about the guy who ran just a half-step slower than Goodwin?

Yes, Tavon Austin of West Virginia – in a dubbed-in fantasy film race produced by the NFL Network – was a mere nanosecond behind Goodwin in the combine 40. The fact the NFL gave Austin an "official" time of 4.34 seconds can be ignored because it was obvious that Austin has the same kind of world-class speed as Goodwin.

And Austin can play football.

That's the reason I had him ranked eighth overall in my last Don't Mock This Draft.

That's the reason I see Austin as the perfect choice to replace Wallace and his 4.2+ speed.

That's perhaps the reason Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert were in Morgantown on Thursday to watch WVU's pro day, and they watched Austin slow down – in the words of The Associated Press – to catch some of Geno Smith's bombs.

Is anyone else remembering Wallace slowing down for Ben Roethlisberger's bombs?

I am.

But here's the problem so many readers out there in internet interaction land have had with my Wallace Replacement Theory: Austin is only 5 feet 8½ and that is too short for what the Steelers need.

OK, I'll buy that the Steelers need a legitimate split end, not another short slot receiver. And legitimate split ends are a lot taller than 5-8½.

They are tall, the way Roethlisberger likes them. So when we take the stereotypical split end and merge that thought with the QB's seven-year itch, we find that it doesn't add up to fulfilling a Steelers need.

But here's what else the Steelers need: a running back and a kick returner.

Yes, Rashard Mendenhall is gone, Chris Rainey is gone, and as previously mentioned Brown is now a professional diva, so he can't be risked returning kicks.

So the Steelers not only need a fast receiver, they need speed at running back and a return man.

They need Tavon Austin.

Can he really play all of those positions? Well, we watched him catch passes and return kicks so often at WVU that no further statistical evidence is required. But against Oklahoma, Austin carried the ball 21 times for 344 yards.

Yes, 3-4-4 rushing yards.

In four years in college, Austin carried 109 times for 1,032 yards (9.5 per carry), and he didn't even get to count all of those silly forward "touches" that counted as pass completions at WVU instead of end-around rushes.

"Tavon is the best player I ever played against," Oklahoma safety Tony Jefferson said at the combine.

Jefferson had been considered a high NFL draft prospect until Tavon kept crossing, and re-crossing, his path.

Another star college safety, Kenny Vaccaro, is considered a first-round prospect, in part because of the job he did on Austin.

"Me and Tavon were going at it all game," Vaccaro said at the combine. "He's a great player. I think I did pretty good. I mean, he's one of the most explosive players in the country and I think I was right there with him."

Yeah, Tavon managed to gain only 108 yards of combined offense against Vaccaro and Texas.

And yet at Austin's diminutive size, all 174 pounds of him, he hasn't missed a game in eight years.

No, Austin should be considered a legitimate replacement for Wallace, even with the other smurf-like receivers the Steelers will put on the field with him. After all, didn't offensive coordinator Todd Haley draft the 5-8¾, 172-pound Dexter McCluster in the second round in 2010? And didn't Haley increase that receiver's rushing load in Kansas City from 18 carries his rookie year to 114 in 2011? And McCluster, with a 4.53 40 at his combine, isn't in Austin's class when it comes to speed.

Yes, Austin is a legitimate candidate for pick No. 17, even if he doesn't fit most of the classic stereotypes.

If not, the other RB/WR/RS in Thursday's pro day games, Denard Robinson of Michigan, would be a logical fall back candidate. But because of the size difference, that story isn't nearly as explosive. Nor is the player.


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