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Bending the Rams offense to fit Tavon Austin

The Rams have a real weapon with the West Virginia receiver. Can they get smart about fitting him into the offense?

David Welker

Least surprising news from the St. Louis Rams OTAs so far: Tavon Austin getting snaps at running back. Jeff Fisher has been clear that he wants to get Austin the ball as much as possible. Working him at running back is one way to do that, a way that Austin has lots of familiarity with from his college playing days.

The great thing about a player like Austin is his versatility. His role in the Rams offense is limited only by Brian Scottenheimer's imagination ... uh, which could be a very real limitation given his penchant for dinking and dunking too. However, knowing that Austin is going to be on the field lining up in the halfback spot is a sure sign that at least some creativity is coming.

Austin's ability to lay waste to a defense from behind the quarterback is legendary already. Just ask Oklahoma about it. The funny thing is, West Virginia didn't give him that many rushing attempts until his senior season. He had 72 carries for 643 yards and three touchdowns. The year before that he had just 16 carries.

My purpose here isn't to get into a lengthy Xs and Os breakdown. That's coming, but this isn't it. Wide receivers lined up at running back, despite the perception, isn't as common as you think.

Dexter McCluster of the Chiefs had 114 rushing attempts in 2011, but I believe Schatz is talking specifically about guys lined up in the HB position, not end arounds and what have you from the slot. Or maybe he's just wrong. Either way, the point remains: it's not a common thing.

The tendency is to think of Austin taking handoffs, running sweeps, etc. while lined up behind Sam Bradford. What you really should focus on is the versatility of lining up Austin at running back. Pair him with a bigger back like Zac Stacy, have the receivers push the corners off and get the ball to one of those guys in the flat. Send him out to catch a screen pass, something I suspect we'll see PLENTY of this year with Austin. Putting him back there confuses the hell out of defenses. They have to account for him, but the Rams don't have to give him the ball. He's dangerous just by being on the field.

Austin lined up at running back is also a sign that Schottenheimer may be borrowing from Austin's college playbook. It would be an incredibly smart thing to do. In fact, there are some similar concepts to Bradford's OU playbook, but that too is for another day.

There is one play from Austin's college playbook that is worth mentioning, mostly just because I can't get it out of my head.

The screen, specifically the sweep screen, is one of Austin's signature plays at West Virginia. It's pretty much like it sounds. Austin crosses from the slot position in front of the quarterback who pitches the ball to him as he crosses in front. The offense moves to the opposite side at the snap. It's technically a pass to Austin, but it's a running play when you boil it down to its essence. He's almost always able to get it to the outside, where he can take it as far as a defender can brush him out of bounds. Granted it's not going to work as easy against the Seahawks or 49ers as it did Oklahoma or Clemson, but it's the kind of misdirection play the game thrives on nowadays.

For a player like Austin, part of the recipe for getting production from him as a rookie is building in the concepts that he knows, the kinds of things that take advantage of his incredible speed and quickness. Adapt the offense to the players, not the players to the offense. Can the Rams do that? I'll admit, that's the biggest concern I have heading into the season.