MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - West Virginia’s Tavon Austin is a constant reminder to Maryland that it let a good player get away.
It happened in recruiting when the speedy Baltimore native decided to play for the rival Mountaineers. And it happened on the field last year, when Austin left Maryland tacklers in his wake.
So new Maryland coach Randy Edsall made it clear that to get an edge on No. 18 West Virginia (2-0) on Saturday, the Terps (1-0) have to slow down Austin, and not just when he’s on offense. LSU will visit West Virginia next Saturday.
Austin also returns punts and kickoffs for the Mountaineers, ranking among the national leaders.
“He’s an athlete who’s very fast, quick and elusive,” Edsall said. “... He’s a threat when he’s a receiver and he’s a threat when he’s a return guy.”
Austin has a lot to live up to in his return to his home state and he’s ready for it. His grandmother, Louann Green, once told him that whatever he does, “Don’t lose to Maryland.”
Austin’s enthusiasm is tempered knowing he has a job to do and the brief homecoming is part of a long season.
He’ll have a strong backing and anticipates family and friends wearing West Virginia’s school colors, although his cousin, former Maryland linebacker Aaron Thompson, will retain his allegiance.
“Hopefully, my teammates will help me get some more tickets,” Austin said.
Austin set four career state records for points (790), touchdowns (123), total offense (9,258) and rushing yards (7,962) for the Poets of Baltimore’s Dunbar High School, where the scholarship offers started in his sophomore year. James Franklin, the former Maryland offensive coordinator, dubbed him a local legend whose gifts were evident going back to midget league.
“A lot of people consider Tavon as being probably the best football player to ever play in the state,” said Austin’s high school coach, Lawrence Smith, who talks to Austin several times a week. “The things that he did, the records that he set. He has a strong legacy.”
One that Austin has backed up by putting up some impressive numbers at West Virginia.
“Anytime he touches the ball, he can score,” Smith said. “So him coming back home, it’s going to be a great deal.”
Austin’s role was expanded this season as part of new West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen’s philosophy of getting the ball to top playmakers as often as possible. He started returning punts this year and went full time on kickoff returns.
The junior hasn’t disappointed, adding to a successful 2010 when he led the Mountaineers in receiving yards (787) and touchdowns (8).
He’s tied with Ivan McCartney for the team receptions lead at nine and is third in receiving yards at 114. He’s among six WVU players with a receiving touchdown this season, and Austin also returned a kickoff 100 yards for a score in the season opener against Marshall.
Austin leads the FBS with a 48-yard average on three kickoff returns. He’s fourth nationally in punt returns with an average of 22 yards in six attempts.
Among the three tasks, Austin named punt returns as his favorite, especially the adrenaline rush he gets when the ball comes off the punter’s foot.
“If it’s deep and I have a chance to make a return, I can probably make a play,” he said.
Austin hurt a finger on his right hand in Saturday’s 55-12 win over Norfolk State but remained in the game. He said the finger won’t reduce his role against Maryland.
It might be difficult for Austin to match his performance against the Terps in Morgantown last year, when he caught seven passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns.
He’s going to try.
“This is my big chance right here, playing an ACC team,” Austin said. “Hopefully I’ll just make a couple of plays to put my team in a position to win. Hopefully, I can come up strong like last year.”
And maybe he’ll get to take home some leftovers from the family’s tailgate party.
“Hopefully my grandmother will bring me some chicken,” he said.