Coming out of Memphis, the biggest blow to Calvin Austin was his size. When he was under 5-foot-8 at the NFL Combine, he wasn’t a surprise, but a lack of prototypical size for the position surely played a part in him dropping to Day 3 of the NFL Draft. Still available in the fourth round, the value for such a talented player was simply too difficult for the Pittsburgh Steelers to pass up.
Since that weekend, all Austin has done is impress during Steelers training camp.
During one-on-one drills, the Memphis product has been difficult to cover in seemingly any reps, regardless of who’s lined up in front of him. He has seen many clashes against first-team nickel corner Arthur Maulet and has excelled in those battles.
When you look at Austin, the first thing that really catches your eye is his quickness at short range and his change of direction. He is a master at selling routes with pace and headers as he weaves in and out of his breaks with ease. Obviously, given his size, he doesn’t have the longest strides, but there’s little wasted movement on any of his routes.
Given his diminutive build, many are quick to label him a gadget type of gamer who is disrespectful to the other areas of his game. However, Austin lined up as the wide receiver for the X Tigers in college, playing mostly outside on the edge and excelling at it. Austin’s ability to get past press coverage is noteworthy, as he possesses a calculated shooting package and quick footwork to get past close coverage.
For a team like the Steelers, who were last in explosive game rating last season, Austin’s speed is a breath of fresh air. His ability to take up a lot of space quickly is something the Steelers have really lacked in recent seasons. He’s already caught several deep balls in training camp and has been working to develop a relationship with all of Pittsburgh’s signal-callers, including Mitch Trubisky.
So far, the deep pass from Austin and Trubisky has been a bit quiet.
“Each one was designed for me to go deep and that’s where I make my bread and butter,” Austin said of the deep balls. “Mitch put it exactly where he needed to be. Mitch knows I’m a fast guy, so he’s throwing it out even before my break is over.”
Many of the deep plays thrown at Austin during training camp apparently came while he was working on the outside. New wide receivers coach Frisman Jackson has told his players that he wants them to be able to work everywhere, inside or outside, to make the offense more interchangeable. While Austin will likely see the majority of his playing time in the slots this season, it’s not out of the question for him to see outside representatives given his skill set and general experience working there in college.
Positional flexibility isn’t the only coaching point Austin is getting from Coach Jackson.
“My attention to detail and always keeping an eye on every play,” Austin said of Jackson’s advice. “Being on the move, seeing the coverage, reading the leverage of the defenses and the feet of the cornerbacks. It’s extremely detailed.”
While he’s currently listed as the fourth member of the Steelers’ depth chart, he probably won’t be there for long. Austin will have a good shot at being the team’s WR4 behind Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and fellow rookie receiver George Pickens. Pittsburgh has a lot of weapons at its disposal, so Austin’s use will no doubt be reduced compared to his college days, but he can play a huge role in improving offenses this season.
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The Steelers will find creative ways to get the ball to him early on in a quest for those explosive plays, as Austin threatens to take him home every time he touches the rock. During camp, we’ve already seen him take a screen pass and go the distance after maneuvering his way through several potential tacklers. A big part of Matt Canada’s offense comes down to his squirt moves, something Austin will certainly play a role in.
His role may also extend beyond the offensive side of football. Austin only returned 29 punts while in Memphis, but he boasted an impressive 11.1 yards per return and took two of those down the stretch to score. We’ve seen him make a few punts in practice, leading to the assumption that he’ll get that opportunity in the preseason.
With his blistering speed on display, Austin will be one of the most exciting players to watch during the preseason. How involved he will be in the team’s offense in the regular season may well be determined by how much success he has over the next two weeks. The road to proving his skeptics wrong begins against the Seattle Seahawks.
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