- Nick Wagoner, ESPN Staff Writer
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Blessed with unteachable speed, quickness and agility, the game came easy to Austin. The hard part was getting him the ball, what he did from there was only a matter of how fast his legs could take him to his destination.
But as with most athletes, eventually simply being better than everyone on the field isn't enough. For some, everyone else catches up in high school, for others it's college, and for those really blessed with God-given ability it doesn't happen until the pros.
Almost from the first day he arrived in St. Louis, Austin realized he fell into the final category. He was inundated with a lengthy and complicated playbook. He was asked to perfect a theretofore unknown NFL route tree. Identifying NFL coverages? Forget it.
Austin might as well have been a character direct from a Robert A. Heinlein novel. He felt like the stranger in a strange land.
"I just came in and everything looked like Spanish, it sounded like Spanish," Austin said. "At the beginning of the year, I was kind of slowing myself down. I was out there just playing. I really didn’t know what was going on. You try to do anything to make a play."
Much was made of the Rams' -- namely, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's -- inability to put Austin in position to succeed. Though there was some truth to that as the Rams stubbornly stuck to lining Austin up in the slot and throwing him quick bubble screens that went nowhere, Austin also shared in the blame for his slow start.
As Austin worked on his route running and understanding of the playbook, he struggled to find separation working out of the slot and on the occasions he did, he had trouble making the catch.
After making six catches for a pedestrian 41 yards in his debut against Arizona, Austin had three drops the following week against Atlanta and another in Week 3 against Dallas. Two weeks later against Jacksonville, he tacked on two more for a total of six in four games. He hit his low point in Week 9 against Tennessee, failing to record a catch on only two targets while playing 29 snaps.
Making matters worse, Austin was making big plays on special teams that were routinely called back because of penalties and, for the first time in his career, he suffered a late-season injury that cost him the final three games. It was all part of Austin's new NFL reality.
"That was definitely a big adjustment," Austin said. "The first time I’ve missed three games ever. I’m just going to prepare mentally and physically so it doesn’t happen again. It’s just something I had to go through."
To be clear, Austin's first season wasn't a total bust. In fact, his overall production was OK for a rookie at one of the toughest positions to learn upon entering the NFL. He set NFL records in a tour de force performance against Indianapolis in Week 10 when he had two catches for 138 yards, both of which went for touchdowns, and a 98-yard punt return for a touchdown.
From there, Austin appeared more comfortable and the Rams found better ways to deploy him, moving him out of the slot and putting him outside the hashes where he could use his speed to run go routes or make catches on deeper crossing routes with the opportunity to make defenders miss in the open field. He finished the season with 40 catches for 418 yards and four touchdowns, nine carries for 151 yards and a touchdown, and 678 return yards while playing in 13 games.
During the team's recent organized team activities, Austin has returned fully healed from the ankle injury and much more advanced in his understanding of the position than when he first arrived.
"I understand coverages better, I understand the plays, the depth of my routes, the splits and everything, so I’m way better off right now," Austin said. "I’m just glad to come out here and make some plays to keep on going."
Austin has been doing a little bit of everything during OTAs, and though it's unwise to judge any players based off practices with no pads and no contact, he has showed flashes of improvement. During a seven-on-seven drill in Thursday's practice, Austin lined up on the hash and ran a well-executed post route down the seam and elevated to make a contested catch between two defenders for a 17-yard touchdown.
Adding more variety and versatility to his route running should only make Austin better in Year 2. And for the Rams, that would be a welcome sight. The team is betting on its current crop of young receivers to take a step forward in 2014. None more so than the former No. 8 overall pick.
"The game is slowing down right now for me, and hopefully it will just keep on slowing down some more," Austin said. "I feel like it will if I keep in my book and (keep) listening to (receivers) coach (Ray) Sherman and I think I’ll be fine."
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