It all started with a lie.
The reason Tavon Austin chose to attend West Virginia in the first place was because the coaches said he could play the position he played in high school -- tailback. But then Austin showed up for his first camp in Morgantown four years ago and ... was listed as a slot receiver.
"Some people told me what I wanted to hear," the current Rams rookie said with a smile after a recent practice in St. Louis. "(Then North Carolina coach) Butch Davis told me he only viewed me as a slot receiver. Georgia came down, wanted me to play DB. I wanted to be a running back, but I really wanted to go to North Carolina, so if Butch Davis gave me a chance at running back, I would've gone there. But he didn't lie to me, kept it real, and that's why I went to West Virginia."
West Virginia coach Bill Stewart's staff limited Austin to playing the slot and returning kicks in his first two years, in part because the Mountaineers already had Noel Devine in a slash role. But when Dana Holgorsen took over for Stewart in 2011, things started to change. By the time Austin's senior year rolled around, he was playing at tailback -- and virtually everywhere else.
Last fall, Austin piled up 1,289 receiving yards, 978 return yards and 643 rushing yards, scoring a total of 17 touchdowns. What was once Austin's perceived weakness -- he was seen as a smaller player who couldn't fit into one of traditional football's roles -- became his greatest strength.
On draft day this year, the Rams forked over multiple picks to move up eight spots and take the 5-foot-8, 172-pound stick of dynamite with the eighth overall selection, ahead of every other skill-position player on the board. St. Louis general manager Les Snead said he never felt a need to put Austin in a box, explaining: "It seems like I've heard 'offensive weapon' ... But it's really looking and saying, 'Can we get a mismatch?' "
The prevalence of the spread offense in college has given rise to the jack-of-all-trades weapon. Because of the built-in flexibility and movement that come with both the pass-heavy and run-heavy schemes, the player who arrives from high school with the "athlete" designation next to his name might not be compartmentalized as much as he would have been in the past.
Among those in the first wave of these athletes to come into the NFL, Percy Harvin had the highest profile. Austin is this year's shiny new model. And rest assured, there are more to come.
"It's one of those deals where, if your farm system, quote-unquote, is running that offense, then you better find a way to use those players, because that's what they just had four years of experience doing," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, who spent 11 years combatting such attacks at Rutgers. "And yes, you can get them to do some things that maybe they're not accustomed to doing. But the things they're gonna do naturally when they get here are things that they've done."
Learning to think big
The Cincinnati Bengals' 5-7, 180-pound playmaker (who's currently rehabbing an ankle injury and has been placed on injured reserve with the designation to return tag) flashed multi-purpose potential in college. He was the first two-way player the University of Toledo had seen in four decades, and he brought 4.3 speed to his pre-draft workouts back in 2008. But NFL clubs weren't quite sure what to make of him.
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Hawkins went undrafted and didn't even get an invite to a training camp. Instead, he headed to the Canadian Football League, where the wider, longer field with more spread-out hashmarks -- plus the genius of then-Montreal Alouettes coach Marc Trestman -- created the right environment in which to foster his skills. After helping Montreal to back-to-back Grey Cup titles, Hawkins finally got a legit shot in the NFL, landing with Cincy in 2011. Last season, he ranked third on the Bengals in catches (51), receiving yards (533) and touchdown receptions (four).
"The league was different five years ago. They weren't taking chances on 5-foot-7 guys," Hawkins said. "You had to be a punt returner or a kick returner. ... I did some kick return, and I've never returned punts in my life. But before, if you weren't that, if you weren't Dante Hall or the rest of the 5-7, 5-8 guys returning kicks, then there wasn't a place for you in the league."
The transformation mirrors what has happened with mobile quarterbacks -- NFL coordinators have become more flexible in adapting their offenses to what their playmakers did as collegians.
The example of Harvin is probably the best one. At Florida, the receiver lined up in the backfield -- next to Tim Tebow -- on a fairly regular basis. Over the past two seasons in the NFL, Harvin averaged three carries per game -- not an enormous number, but a significant one for a player not listed as a back on a team, the Minnesota Vikings, that also featured the best ball carrier in the business in Adrian Peterson.
The next step of this story comes with the Seattle Seahawks' acquisition via trade of Harvin in March. The Seattle brass saw the less-traditional strengths of his game as an enormous asset, something that could conjure nightmare scenarios for defensive coaches trying to prepare for him.
That's quite a change, given that not so long ago, as Hawkins said, it was considered a nightmare for offensive coaches to try to find a role for a guy like Harvin.
"Percy's different, because we've seen what he can do," Seattle general manager John Schneider said. "They line up with him at the 4-yard line last year, and they hand him the ball out of the 'I'; they got him in the slot; they're playing him outside. We've seen it. He was a pretty easy guy to scout for us in the pros, and in terms of our acquisition process and how we evaluated him."
'You need a plan'
Some scouts saw University of Texas athlete Marquise Goodwin as a poor man's Austin -- a smaller player with world-class speed capable of changing a game in a half-dozen seconds. And Goodwin teased as a Longhorn, though he never had more than 33 catches in a season. That statistic glares back at you when you consider that Austin posted consecutive 100-catch seasons and had 72 carries as a senior.
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Goodwin might actually be a tick faster than Austin, according to evaluators, while Austin has superior short-area quickness and instincts. But the biggest difference was the way the two were used in the Big 12.
"You need a plan, and you have to know going in," said one area scout who is assigned to the Big 12. "Some guys, you can say, 'This one's an X' or 'This one's a Y' or 'This one's a slot and we're gonna use him in the return game.' You can categorize most guys as possession or speed receivers, because they have the dimensions, the height, weight and speed in a range. With these guys, you don't meet those guidelines, so you have to do extra. Otherwise, you're potentially gonna waste a pick.
"Texas didn't have a plan with Goodwin. And that could happen again in the NFL, because you can't just treat him like any receiver."
Goodwin, in that sense, might have been fortunate to land with the Buffalo Bills. That team features a new staff coming straight from the college game, with ideas of how these players are to be used.
"The NFL's becoming a lot more involved in the spread, but if you're not involved, like we're not involved, then it's hard to evaluate those guys," Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. "But when you have a gifted athlete like that, who had so much success at the college level, if you wanna take a chance with him, then you should have to have a plan for him, whether it's a spread offense or you try him at halfback or you try him at receiver or slot.
"It might take a year or two, but great athletes are great athletes. They're hard to find."
'He's electrically fast'
That seemingly straightforward quote is loaded with meaning -- mostly that the Rams' shiny new toy is currently best cloaked in ambiguity. Fisher has a plan, as does offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who years ago had to get creative when incorporating college quarterback Brad Smith into the New York Jets' offense. It's similar to the challenge facing the Jacksonville Jaguars with quarterback-turned-offensive-weapon Denard Robinson.
And of course, these players aren't all alike. Some played quarterback in college. Others, like Harvin, are bigger. But they generally do have one thing in common.
"(Harvin) has an extraordinary trait -- his speed," Schiano said. "So even though he may not have played in a conventional offense in college, he still had that trait. ... Tavon Austin, I coached against him, he's got a very distinguishable trait. He's electrically fast. That, to me, is the deal, when you say, 'Can they?' Sure you can. You can do a lot of things."
The issue can be the point of diminishing returns. Using players in more ways means they're placed in the line of fire more often.
A lack of size can compound the problem. Players like Austin and Harvin are shouldering a sizable load from the slot, which demands running directly into the land of hulking linebackers and heat-seeking safeties. The best ones have a knack for avoiding direct hits -- think Wes Welker, or Barry Sanders back in the day -- but most wind up eventually paying a price. It's not hard to find examples; both Harvin and Hawkins are on the shelf now. And it's not just the injury risk, either.
"(They can be) hard to scout, because you don't get to see anyone jam the (crap) out of them," Schneider said. "How's he gonna react when he comes on a drag, and all of the sudden, there is a safety there that's pretty damn fast? You catch a pass, and he knocks the (crap) out of you; how are you gonna react? Those are the things. Do you always have to bring him in motion to get separation? If you have to do that, that's fine.
"But that type of player, can he just go out there and play 'X,' or do you have to have a plan? And are you willing to do that with guys? You have to have a staff that's willing to be creative, and if you don't, the value of the player isn't as high."
Of course, these days, you see an increasing number of coaches willing to invest the time. In fact, Snead pointed out that you might see more inventiveness at the high school level than anywhere else. That has trickled up. Gus Malzahn went from Springdale (Ark.) High to the University of Arkansas, becoming offensive coordinator there in 2006 and bringing the Wildcat to the college game. The Clemson team that lit up Georgia last Saturday? Its offensive commander, Chad Morris, went from Lake Travis (Texas) High to Tulsa to Clemson in the span of 12 months.
As colleges borrow from high schools, the pros are borrowing from colleges. That's where one finds the link between the first superstar of this genre and the latest prodigy.
Making matchup magic
The do-everything role wasn't an easy sell on Harvin in high school. Like most kids, the teenager envisioned growing up at a specific position -- tailback -- rather than several.
Landstown (Va.) coach Chris Beatty convinced Harvin before his sophomore year that he'd be that much more effective if the staff could maximize his skill in the passing game. It worked out. As Beatty said, "He went to Florida, and they did the exact same thing with him." That gave the people in Minnesota the bright idea that it might be smart to keep playing to his strengths.
A couple of years later, Beatty landed at West Virginia, where he helped recruit Austin. Austin said Beatty told him he was "the closest to Percy that he'd seen." So in this case, it wasn't nearly as hard to coax the athlete to be just that -- an athlete -- rather than stick to a static role as a receiver or back.
"You always gotta have a person in the league that shows teams that it can be done," Austin said. "He's not labeled as a true wide receiver, but he still has success. And that just opened it for me and guys like me. So when (Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas) comes out, he's similar to me, so now it's up to me to keep the train moving, and hopefully he'll be successful, too."
Thomas, a junior for the Ducks, is just one potential "next big thing." Maryland sophomore Stefon Diggs is another. And there will be more.
As offenses continue to evolve, so will the roles of the players within them. That's not to say these guys will be everywhere, but the ones who are good enough now have an outlet with which to show they are.
"I hear so many people say, 'He plays the Percy Harvin role; he's a Percy Harvin-type player,' " Beatty said. "Ain't a whole lot of Percy Harvin-type players. There's only one I've seen, and that's Tavon."
And in this case, it's about more than just speed. It's also about the ability to escape defenders and avoid hits. You have to see the field like a tailback and read it like a receiver, and you have to have the smarts to absorb an offense from several different spots, with reps split up among those positions.
Add all it up, and it's a lot to ask. The end result, though, is even more to handle for a defense.
"You don't know how to match up, personnel-wise," said Beatty, now the receivers coach at Wisconsin. "If he's in the backfield, how do you match up if you motion him out? Do you play nickel? If you move him out to receiver, there's a nickel guy out there who's a mismatch. If he's in the backfield, he creates mismatches, because you have two backs back there. What personnel do you put on the field?
"(Austin) creates a ton of matchups, and Percy's the same way. I watched a couple of (Vikings) games, and you think, How do you match up when you've got two backs back there? Do you play base personnel? If you play base, then you motion him out to the slot; now how are you gonna match up? It's a definite issue for defensive coordinators."
Four years after he insisted on getting a shot at tailback, Austin found himself saying this to NFL teams in pre-draft interviews: "Whatever position y'all want me to play, I'll play."
By then, he'd learned that the more he could do, the more valuable he'd be. It seems like all of pro football has learned that, too.