- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- They sold him on the chance to be the next Noel Devine.
When Tavon Austin signed with West Virginia, he believed that to be his future role with the Mountaineers. He had played running back from the time he started Pee Wee football at age 7, and he had his sights set on being a terrific college running back as well. But when he got to Morgantown, there would be no future as the next Devine.
Coaches essentially offered Austin a proposition he had to take: Sit for two years behind Devine. Or play now. At receiver. A position Austin had never played.
Austin was hugely disappointed at the time. But it's a move that ended up working out not only for him, but for West Virginia. He moved to inside receiver when coach Dana Holgorsen arrived last spring, and was one of the best players in the Big East this season. But he can do much more than catch passes.
Austin is one of the most dangerous all-purpose players in the country. He needs 62 yards to end up as the No. 1 all-purpose player for 2011. He has scored this season on kickoff returns, touchdown catches and touchdown runs. His small frame (5-9, 176) and incredible speed make him one of the tougher players to bring down, presenting a huge challenge for Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl Wednesday night.
"He can run with the ball, so we've got to tackle, and we've got to rally to the ball," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "We've worked hard on that in camp as far as really getting everybody to the ball, because he's hard to get a hold of, and makes people miss. So we've got to get that first guy there, hold on somehow and get the posse on the way."
To see what Austin has been able to do at receiver in such a short period has truly been remarkable. "Maybe I ran one go route before I got here," he said in a recent interview with ESPN.com. "Nothing where I had to cut in and out of routes, gaps and stuff like that."
When asked how he felt when he changed positions, Austin said, "I definitely was down the first couple weeks. I came in to be one thing and it turns out they wanted me to be something else. I kept my spirits up high and I kept grinding. My body is still fresh and I'm not really banged up, so it was probably the best thing for me."
So was Holgorsen's entrance into the West Virginia fold. His high-powered offense typically produces 3,000-yard passers and 1,000-yard receivers. Given the track record, many anticipated that Austin would end up with his best season yet. And he did, making the Big East first team as a receiver and return specialist, while also winning Big East Special Teams Player of the Year honors.
Austin ended the season with 1,063 yards receiving and a team-high 89 catches, forming a 1,000-yard duo with Stedman Bailey.
"I think you can tell pretty quick that they're special players," inside receivers coach Shannon Dawson said. "You never know how a kid's attitude is going to be, and I think that's the most important thing. A lot of times when you're dealing with kids that have been good their whole life, then they have a little bit of sense of entitlement to them, and that's one thing as coaches, you've got to either get it out of them or hope and pray that they don't have it.
"So that's one thing that I would say that I've been more surprised with more than their ability. I could tell they had ability on Day One. But I was pleased with the fact that they're selfless. I was pleased with the fact that they continue to go out and work every day just like they're trying to prove themselves, and so that's the best part about those guys."
So how best to defend a player as small and fast as Austin?
"You have to put your hands on them at the line," Clemson cornerback Coty Sensabaugh said. "If you give those guys space to maneuver, they can embarrass you out there. They're really good receivers. We're going to have a big challenge as a whole, as a defense, but it will be exciting. They like to get the ball out in space with those guys and make people miss. We definitely have to tackle well."
For his part, that all-purpose mark means more to Austin than just piling up receiving yards. He takes pride in his punt and kickoff returns because he can contribute to the team in various ways. Who knows what would have happened had he stayed at running back.
West Virginia clearly did not need another Noel Devine. It needed the first Tavon Austin.