EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Tavon Austin played nine offensive snaps and one special-teams play in the Rams’ preseason opener against Cleveland. For each of those 10 plays, Austin admits he felt a little bit uncomfortable.
Maybe it was just the nerves of participating in his first live NFL game, but more likely it was because he did it without the use of his favorite fall accessory: the football.
The Rams and quarterback Sam Bradford remedied that situation Saturday against Green Bay as Austin played almost twice as much and was far more of a factor in the offense.
Austin finished with 16 snaps on offense and dropped back to return punts twice, coming up with four catches for 28 yards and a punt return that gained nothing. Bradford targeted Austin on seven of his 12 pass attempts.
“It felt good,” Austin said. “I had a couple catches today. It made me feel like I’m getting a little more comfortable, got my confidence back in myself. Hopefully we just keep going along.”
Now, it’s probably safe to assume Austin didn’t spend a week down in the dumps dwelling on his lack of touches or playing time in the preseason opener, but his “gaining confidence back” is an interesting comment when taken at face value.
Austin was such an integral part of all things that West Virginia did offensively and on special teams, the mere idea of playing a game without a prominent role was a new experience. Since there are no preseason games in college, it’s not like Austin knew how to handle being “saved” for later.
Bradford indicated there was no specific plan to get Austin a certain amount of touches, but they did want him more involved.
“Yeah, after last week with him not getting any receptions, we wanted to try to get him the ball,” Bradford said. “I thought he did a great job.”
It was clear that when Austin did finally get his hands on the ball -- he couldn’t corral a catchable pass on his only target against the Browns -- he was a bit too eager to turn it into a touchdown.
Austin’s highlights from his time in college show a player so quick and shifty that he could often run 150 yards to gain 60 and reach the end zone, even against Big 12 competition. While that’s a big part of his game and a major reason the Rams moved up to draft him No. 8 overall in April, he’s going to have to adjust to the advanced speed and defensive schemes that await him in the NFL.
As the preseason goes on and into the regular season, Austin will have to continue to look for ways to make a quick determination if the chance to break one is there or if he should simply turn up the field and get all he can.
The Packers clearly made it a point to not allow Austin to shake loose. For most of the night, they allowed him to make catches in the short to intermediate area and forced Austin to spend so much time looking for room to operate that he had a gang of tacklers surrounding him by the time he tried to accelerate upfield.
Austin took the same tact when he finally got an opportunity to return a punt. After the ball sailed over his head for a touchback on his first attempt, Green Bay pinned Austin squarely at the right corner of the 6. He caught it and searched for room to run but the Packers converged on him before he could make a decision and he gained nothing.
It was a punt Austin might not have tried to return in the regular season but he wanted to get a repetition.
“I was very anxious to get one -- get my hands on one,” Austin said. “That’s my specialty and that’s what I love to do back there. Hopefully next time I get a little more open field and really get to show what I can do.”
Working in open space is indeed Austin’s specialty, something he’s done consistently during this training camp. The next step is to determine when there’s enough room to work with and when he should take what he can get.