- Nick Wagoner, ESPN Staff Writer
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As the first skill position player drafted last April, Austin was expected to come in and jump-start the Rams' offense and special teams with his combination of speed and elusiveness.
While there were flashes of all of that -- he took over and dominated the team's win against Indianapolis -- the thing lacking most was consistency.
Austin summed up his first NFL season best on Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours after sitting out his third consecutive game with a sprained ankle.
“I did OK,” Austin said. “Not the year I definitely wanted. I had a slow start and then hurt at the end but my focus next year is finish the year out and play how I usually play, make big plays and help this team win.”
Much like his punt return style, Austin's season was full of stops and starts. He struggled with drops right off the bat, losing the handle on six passes in the first five weeks. Likewise, the Rams rarely found ways to get him the ball in open space.
Aside from a two-touchdown game against Atlanta in Week 2, Austin was a relative non-factor the first nine weeks of the season. Of course, the lack of production wasn't all his fault, either.
Silly penalties nullified a handful of big punt returns, including a touchdown against Dallas and a tripping penalty canceled out a long touchdown grab against Carolina.
Austin insisted he wasn't frustrated but it was evident on his face as he left the locker room moments after the team's win against Jacksonville in Week 5 with his eye black still under his eyes.
The worm finally turned against the Colts, jump-started by a scintillating 98-yard punt return for a touchdown as the Rams surged to a 38-8 win and Austin added touchdown catches covering 138 yards total.
“That's definitely my favorite play so far,” Austin said of the return. “Hopefully in the future we have got a lot of big plays coming too.”
Austin followed the next week with a 65-yard touchdown run to give the Rams an early lead against Chicago on the way to another convincing win. It wasn't until two weeks later that Austin had another big play, a 56-yard rush against Arizona where Austin suffered the ankle injury as he fell to the ground.
For the first time in his football-playing career, Austin had to sit out a game. And another. And another.
Austin says he fought the urge to be frustrated by missing games, opting to pay close attention and trying to see things from the sideline that aren't as visible when he's on the field.
“You see a lot,” Austin said. “You see defenses, you see the mental side of it, how smart you are as far as reading coverages on the sideline. That's how I took it. I definitely didn't take it as a loss. I took some positive out of it. I believe I got a lot smarter.”
Austin's ankle injury doesn't appear to have any long-term implications. He said Monday he would have been able to play this week if the Rams had a game. But Austin also is clear that he wants to find ways to continue building his body heading into his second season.
“I am going to put on a couple more pounds, not lose my speed and just work on the small things of the game, the mental part, some things like that,” Austin said. “That's what I can improve.”
Austin's final numbers fall well short of the many unrealistic expectations that were placed on him when he entered the league. He finished with 40 catches for 418 yards, nine carries for 151 yards and five touchdowns combined between the two.
As a returner, Austin added that aforementioned touchdown while averaging 22.11 yards per kick return and 8.48 yards per punt return.
While the numbers aren't eye-popping, Austin made enough big plays to show that he does indeed have the ability to be a game-changing player. The challenge moving forward falls not only on Austin to become a more consistent route runner and pass-catcher but also on the Rams to put him in position to make plays.
Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer found some creative ways -- see the touchdown run against Chicago -- to use Austin but those were too few and far between. Additionally, it will be interesting to see where Austin fits if the Rams remain committed to the run-heavy approach they showed in the final 12 weeks.
Austin has too much ability to only touch the ball in the offense four or five times a game but if that is to be his role, the Rams have to at least find ways to maximize those touches. Adding a No. 1 receiver to open some things up underneath would also be a helpful touch.
Regardless of how that plays out, Austin has his sights set on bigger things in 2014 after his introduction to the rigors of the NFL.
“It's a different league but I'm grateful for the opportunities I had and I took advantage of them,” Austin said. “I'm going to keep on pushing and next year will definitely be a better year.”