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Tavon Austin Inspires Copycat Act At Kansas

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Charlie Weis studied Tavon Austin's performance at West Virginia in hopes of utilizing speedy running back Tony Pierson in a similar fashion. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images.
Charlie Weis studied Tavon Austin's performance at West Virginia in hopes of utilizing speedy running back Tony Pierson in a similar fashion. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images.

Football is full of copycats. They’re winners and champions, but they’re copycats. It’s why the sport trends the way it does and promotes a certain style of offense or outside linebacker or head coach.

It’s why clinics are popular offseason ventures for guys like Tony Franklin, the oft employed, oft imitated offensive coordinator who’s followed Sonny Dykes from Louisiana Tech to Cal. It’s why Louisiana Monroe runs a few plays against Baylor where one quarterback hands to another quarterback and the second quarterback passes the ball a full seven months before Oklahoma State uses the two-quarterback set in its spring game.

Try this on for size: Kevin Sumlin coaches Texas A&M, arguably the hottest college program not named Alabama. He came from the University of Houston, where he was hired in December 2007. His first offensive coordinator was Dana Holgorsen, whoM Sumlin knew from inside the Big 12. Sumlin had been a co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma and witnessed what Holgorsen and Mike Leach were doing at Texas Tech.

Sumlin wanted Holgorsen to run the offense he’d run for the Red Raiders, but he wanted Holgorsen to call and snap plays as quickly as possible. Why? Sumlin’s last game with the Sooners was the 2008 Fiesta Bowl and he’d seen West Virginia no-huddle its way 525 yards in 25:43 of possession in a stunning 48-28 upset.

It was impossible not to be impressed. Sumlin recognized it as the future. That future could be traced back to Rich Rodriguez, who mastered the idea as the head coach at West Virginia after installing it as the head coach at small schools in the West Virginia Conference and then being asked to implement it as offensive coordinator at Tulane and Clemson.

There are countless other examples, but seemingly all of them involve a coach or school copying schemes, formations, plays — heck, stadium features.

It’s hard to copy a player.

Just don’t tell that to Charlie Weis. A coaching chameleon after running NFL offenses with the New York Jets, New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs, but also leading an SEC offense at Florida, the Kansas coach is quite serious about it. He wants to make the Jayhawks' offense something else by turning running back Tony Pierson into someone else.

 “We obviously have big plans for Tony,” Weis said during spring practice. “We didn't do all of that research on Tavon Austin for nothing.”

Austin, of course, is the dynamic, diminutive slot receiver who dazzled at West Virginia before the St. Louis Rams drafted him eighth in April’s draft. Austin earned many All-America honors the last two seasons for his exploits on offense and special teams, but he earned more fans because of his highlight plays

Pierson is not yet that player, but the rising junior is that type of player.

“When you get someone who is doing something really good and you think you have someone that fits that build, then you go and study them,” Weis said.

Trust that Weis didn’t helicopter into Morgantown and spend time on the West Virginia campus. He and Holgorsen seem to have developed a preference for subtly mocking one another and they traded zingers before their game in December.

But in that game, Austin caught four passes for 110 yards and added 77 yards and a touchdown rushing. The Mountaineers won handily, 59-10, and Austin averaged a flashy 11.7 yards every time he caught or carried the ball.

The Kansas offense didn’t have that capability last season. Out of 120 FBS teams, the Jayhawks finished ranked No. 103 with 5.0 yards per play. The entire offense accounted for 36 plays of 20 yards or more. Pierson was not to blame, though. He had eight of the 36, including four runs and one reception of 40 or more yards. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry on the way to 760 yards rushing and added 13.9 yards per reception on the way to 291 yards receiving.

His 7.6 yards per offensive touch ranked second among Big 12 running backs behind Baylor’s Lache Seastrunk (8.0) and slightly behind Austin’s pace (10.5) that was inflated by his receiving totals.

Austin measured out at 5-foot-9 and 174 pounds at the draft combine, where he clocked a 4.34 in the 40-yard dash. His potential was always questioned because of his size and the fact he didn’t have a true position until Holgorsen’s offense crafted one for him and his speed. 

Everything came together to overwhelm the Big 12 last season, so don't fault Weis for thinking big. Pierson is much the same, listed at 5-foot-10 and 171 pounds by Kansas and ranked by Rivals.com in 2011 as the eighth-best “athlete” in his recruiting class — a group led by Oregon’s DeAnthony Thomas, USC’s Marqise Lee and TCU’s LaDarius Brown. Weis said Pierson's 40 time is in the "4.3 and change range."

Pierson and Austin were high school running backs, but Austin was a receiver in college who only played running back late last season, though with smashing success and 344 yards in a single game against Oklahoma. Pierson has remained a running back, but one who Weis believes can be moved around to play receiver and capitalize on mismatches, which Weis figures to be able to create.

Oklahoma transfer Justin McCay and Miami University transfer Nick Harwell, who emerged as a draft prospect with 165 receptions for 2,295 yards the last two seasons, should both be factors in the fall. There’s hope for junior college transfer Rodriguez Coleman, who had 70 receptions for 1,055 yards and a very good reputation last season.

Pierson won't be the focus of the secondary, which is ideal for someone who will line up against linebackers or safeties, catch quick throws in space in the slot or sweep across the field underneath the coverage.

He’ll carry more responsibility in the running game, but not as the feature act. Weis has his top three rushers back from last season, led by James Sims, who managed 1,013 yards despite missing the first three games with a suspension.

Complementary roles can combine to be something larger, though. The opportunity is there for Weis to use and move Pierson like a chess piece.

“Tony is still clearly the most dynamic running back we have, but the problem is, he might be the most dynamic receiver we have as well,” Weis said. “He is a definite pain in the butt for the defense because he can play detached from the backfield. Tony has shown that he can run legitimate routes, catch the ball, and most importantly, he can get open. That gives you a chance."