In 2013, the Rams drafted Tavon Austin with the eighth overall pick because of his exceptional highlights and his dominance at West Virginia, in spite of his height and weight. Jeff Fisher and company did not draft Austin in the top-ten because of his ability to return punts and kicks, but that was part of his game also.
In four seasons, Austin had four kickoff returns for a touchdown; and one punt return for a score despite not taking over that position until he was a junior.
It is not news to Rams fans that Austin failed to meet expectations as an offensive weapon, but as a rookie in a Week 10 matchup against an Andrew Luck-led Colts team that would finish 11-5, Austin returned a punt 98 yards for a touchdown to put St. Louis ahead 21-0. Austin would then catch a 57-yard touchdown from Kellen Clemens to make it 28-0, then an 81-yard touchdown to make it 35-0.
By golly, Tavon Austin might be the real deal.
Instead, he was more like the “fake shake” but Austin had a 78-yard punt return touchdown in year two, and a 75-yard punt return touchdown in a dramatic 34-31 overtime win against the Seahawks. The Rams went 3-0 when Austin and even if it only happened once per season, sometimes that’s all it takes to change your year as a franchise.
The Rams didn’t have to draft Tutu Atwell in the top-ten, at least.
Since Sean McVay took over in 2017, the Rams have used five different players on punt returns: 2017 all-pro Pharoh Cooper, Austin, Jojo Natson, Nsimba Webster, and Cooper Kupp. But the last time the Rams scored a touchdown on a punt return was with Austin in 2015.
The 5’8, 155 lb Atwell only had four punt returns in college (one going for 50 yards), and he was not drafted in the second round just to work on special teams, but this past week he’s been talked about as a consideration to take over that job from Webster this year. Here’s what Stu Jackson had to say about it at Rams.com:
Rookie wide receiver Tutu Atwell was getting reps with the punt returners, confirming what he told reporters yesterday. Atwell had limited experience with it in college with just four – all during his 2019 sophomore season – but that was primarily because defensive back Rodjay Burn and running back Hassan Hall handled those duties. Hall was an All-ACC Second Team selection as an all-purpose player and Third Team selection as a specialist in 2019. As shown by his wide receiver film and 4.32-second 40-yard dash at Louisville’s pro day, Atwell’s speed makes him an attractive option as new Rams special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis continues to evaluate the position. One of those four punt returns in college went for 50 yards, for what it’s worth.
Atwell isn’t the first name I would have guessed but he’s potentially the most interesting name that could emerge in that race this year. Either that or DeSean Jackson, a former “Miracle Maker” who only has nine punt returns in the last seven years, gaining a total of 21 yards.
Yeah, it’s not going to be Jackson.