English was a second language for wide receiver Tavon Austin when it came to understanding the Rams’ playbook in 2013.
Although things got better as his rookie season progressed, Austin said there were times when he felt like it was written in Spanish.
“It definitely was hard in the beginning last year,” Austin said. “Toward the middle and the end (of the season) I probably started picking up on it. That’s when I started having some big games. But for the most part, it’s all about the mental game, getting comfortable. I believe I’m comfortable now.”
After a full offseason in the conditioning program, the OTA sessions in June, and now three weeks into training camp, Austin says he’s back to reading English.
“Yeah. Definitely,” he said, grinning. “It’s exactly what I speak now.”
In college at West Virginia, the playbook was thinner and the play calls were shorter. In fact, Austin said most of the plays were called via signals with the Mountaineers.
Those playbook struggles, combined with a high ankle sprain that caused him to miss the final three games, made it a so-so season in Austin’s mind. The No. 8 overall draft pick in 2013 gave himself a ‘C’ grade for his rookie campaign. Average.
“That’s just me talking because I know what I can do, and I know I can do better,” he said. “I wasn’t comfortable last year, so it’s all about me getting back in my state of mind, getting comfortable, and hopefully I’ll get some big plays.”
The big plays started coming over the second half of the season. The dam burst in Game 10, a 38-8 dismantling of the Indianapolis Colts, with Austin returning a punt 98 yards for a touchdown and catching TD passes of 57 and 81 yards.
The following week in a 42-21 thrashing of Chicago, Austin scored on a 65-yard rushing play. And then late in the third quarter of a 30-10 lost cause at Arizona in Game 13, Austin raced 56 yards on a non-scoring run to the Cardinals’ 4-yard line. But that’s where the big plays stopped, and where Austin’s season ended, because he suffered the ankle injury on that play.
The injury made the rookie year even tougher for him to swallow because Austin was as durable as they come in college, high school, even little league. He just doesn’t miss practices or miss games despite his small frame (5-8, 176).
“It definitely hurt that I missed those three games,” Austin said. “But everything happens for a reason. It taught me to be humble. It taught me to be patient. That’s the two top things that stuck with me through that whole process.”
The injury ended Austin’s first NFL season at 40 catches for 418 yards and four touchdowns. He had nine carries for 151 yards and a TD; 398 yards on kickoff returns; and 280 yards and a score on punt returns.
It all added up to 1,247 all-purpose yards, good for fourth among NFL rookies in 2013 behind Minnesota’s Cordarrelle Patterson (1,862), Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy (1,435) and Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell (1,259). Minus the ankle injury, Austin should’ve easily finished second behind Patterson.
Nonetheless, Austin felt he should’ve done more, studied more, produced more.
“Definitely, because I know what I can do for the team,” he said. “That’s what it all boils down to. I’m probably my biggest critic. At the end of the day, I’m gonna keep on grinding myself until I know I’ve had a successful season.”
Austin hasn’t been as noticeable on the practice field this camp as teammates Stedman Bailey, Kenny Britt and Brian Quick. He had a couple of drops Monday but bounced back Tuesday with some impressive catches in traffic. (The team had a special teams only practice Wednesday.)
“We just have to give him the ball,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “Give him the ball in space, because we all know what he can do with it. And so we’re doing some different things. Probably won’t show a whole lot in the preseason but I’ve very pleased with where he’s at right now.”
Yes, the Rams are planning to expand Austin’s role in terms of where they line him up and what they do with him. They can expose him to more of the playbook because he has a better grasp of it entering his second year.
“Being able to move him around in different spots, he’s got a lot on his plate,” wide receivers coach Ray Sherman said.
The best part of Austin’s game is running fast and making people miss with his quickness. An improved grasp of the playbook greatly helps the cause, because it’s hard to play fast if you’re not sure about the play call, or where you’re supposed to go, or what you’re seeing after the snap.
Austin was on the field for only 19 offensive plays last Friday in the preseason opener against New Orleans and had a modest three catches for 20 yards. So it was difficult to gauge his progress, or lack thereof, in that game.
But quarterback Sam Bradford likes what he’s seen of Austin on the practice field.
“You can see that he’s playing so much faster than he was last year,” Bradford said. “Being in the second year of the offense, I think he feels a lot more comfortable with what he’s being asked to do. I don’t think he’s thinking as much, and you really see his speed come out in the way that he’s playing right now.”
And a speedy Austin should be a big-play Austin.