There have been a couple of times during practice this week when Tavon Austin approached quarterback Sam Bradford and asked about some small adjustments versus different Arizona coverages.
That may not seen like a big deal, but to Bradford it spoke volumes about the development of the Rams’ rookie receiver.
“That shows me a lot because we haven’t had those conversations before,” Bradford said. “I think it’s really great to see something like that happen. ... I think he’s starting to understand the finer points of the offense and of the routes that he’s running.”
Just in time for opening day. It’s time for the NFL’s No. 8 overall draft pick to show his stuff, starting with Sunday’s 3:25 p.m. kickoff at the Edward Jones Dome. The Rams made Austin the first skill-position player in the draft for a reason, and traded up to get him.
“Physically, he’s absolutely ready,” backup QB Kellen Clemens said. “His talent will carry over from the college game, no problem. But at the same time, he is a rookie. He has a lot of stuff to learn still, just about the game. But he’s gonna have an immediate impact.”
But he is a rookie, and rookies sometimes line up in the wrong spot, or just plain make mistakes. There may be surprises, good and bad, in the early going.
“No question,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “That’s a thing that we’ve talked about. The youth of our football team is really exciting. There’s gonna be some great plays made and we’re gonna have to live with some of the hiccups that happen along the way, and just not get too up and too down.”
Players and coaches alike have taken notice of Austin’s work ethic since his first practices at Rams Park. They’ve also noticed that he doesn’t walk around with a sense of entitlement. Sometimes top 10 picks aren’t quite as hungry as you would like; they feel like they’ve already arrived.
“You don’t have to worry about any of that with him,” Clemens said. “There’s no ego.”
“He’s ready to go,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “He’s prepared to do whatever we ask him to do for us this week.”
Of course, it’s the “whatever we ask him to do” that has most Rams fans excited. How will Austin be used?
Some of that, of course, is obvious. He will undoubtedly line up in the slot, but he’s capable of lining up outside as well at wide receiver. Anyone who watched the Denver preseason game knows what Austin can do as a punt returner against NFL competition — he had 81 yards worth of excitement on one play.
He’s also capable of returning kickoffs, although he didn’t return any during the preseason. Everyone knows he lined up at running back in college, although none of that was done in exhibition play. You can think of any manner of trick play and roll those over in your mind.
All things are possible with Austin, it’s just a matter of where, when, and how it will be unleashed in a game. It’s certainly keeping Arizona coach Bruce Arians up late as well as the Big Red defensive staff.
“He’s a dynamic player,” Arians said. “You could see it coming out. Every time he touches the ball, you hold your breath.
“Not only did they throw it to him at West Virginia, he ran it. So you have to get ready for some things. Knowing Brian (Schottenheimer) a little, and his past, there’ll be some Wildcat with him.”
After the first practice of Arizona week, Austin was surrounded by a large group of media members Wednesday at his locker stall. It was the kind of crowd usually reserved for quarterbacks. The low-key Austin seemed just a little surprised by all the fuss.
“I’m very excited, just to be blessed in this place where I’m at right now,” Austin said. “It’s my dream; it’s any person’s dream. I’m just glad I’m living it, and hopefully some special things happen for this team and myself, and we just go from there.”
Austin said he’s comfortable with what the Rams have asked him to do on the field and ready to do whatever is asked.
“Whether it’s running down the field to be a ‘gunner,’ or catch punts, that’s what I’m gonna do,” he said.
Gunner? Those are the guys that sprint downfield on the outside of punt formation, trying to work their way to the punt returner.
“You never know what they might have me doing,” Austin said, smiling. “You’ve just got to have an open mind for anything at this level.”
Like every other rookie on the Rams roster, Austin is constantly learning, and this week he’s noticed that the intensity level has gone up in practice.
“Not a lot of playing around or nothing; not even in meeting rooms,” Austin said.
There’s something different about Austin as well, according to Schottenheimer.
“I love the look on his face,” Schottenheimer said. “He’s really dialed in. I don’t know whether it’s because it’s the first ‘real’ game. Whether it’s the fact that he’s got, I think, quite a few people coming in to see the game. Obviously, he’s a competitor.”
Competitor enough to look forward to the challenge of facing Arizona nickel back Tyrann Mathieu, the rookie from Louisiana State. But Austin barely nibbled when asked about this week’s matchup.
“It’s just feels good to be out there against another great player,” Austin said. “I pretty much don’t want to speak on it. I’m just gonna come out Sunday and do my part.”
It was the same when asked about their West Virginia-LSU matchup in 2011.
“Yeah, we matched up,” Austin said. “They won the game. So I’m here now, and hopefully we can get a win.”
LSU won that contest, 47-21. Mathieu, aka the Honey Badger, had an interception and forced a fumble.
Austin? Eleven catches for 187 yards.
In a vote by the players, the Rams have named linebacker James Laurinaitis (defense); Bradford and tackle Jake Long (offense); and safety Rodney McLeod (special teams) as team captains for the season. ... There were no changes to the injury report with TE Cory Harkey (knee), S Darian Stewart (thigh), CB Quinton Pointer (thigh), and LB Jonathan Stewart (hip) not practicing Thursday. ... Tickets remain available, but Sunday’s game will be televised locally, according to team officials.