Sometimes in life things can turn out the way you want them, just not how you envisioned you would get there. Boyhood dreams can be great, but you never realize how much work it takes to make them happen, even when they are actually happening. Such is the story of Calvin Austin III who grew up in Memphis hoping to play football for the University of Memphis Tigers team.
“My dad would take me to football camps, so I went to Memphis camps when coach Fuente was there and when coach Norvell was there. I was going to camps maybe two or three times a year if they were having it in the fall or the spring or in the summer. I kept going, and I would perform great, actually. I would usually have the fastest 40, I would do good on my routes; sometimes, I would go as a cornerback,” he said.
“My whole thing was I wanted to do Memphis how DeAngelo Williams did,” said Austin. Growing up there was no pro team in Memphis except the Grizzlies basketball team in the NBA. Since he was a football player, he idolized the Memphis greats he saw and read about in his hometown newspaper.
It wasn’t like Austin had only a few players to choose from. In the last decade there has been a plethora of undervalued stars coming out of Memphis which sits on the Western edge of Tennessee. That location allows Memphis to recruit locally in Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Southern Missouri Players like Darrell Henderson (Batesville, Mississippi), Kenneth Gainwell (Vicksburg, Mississippi), Tony Pollard (Memphis), Antonio Gipson (Stockbridge, Georgia), and DeAngelo Williams (Wynne, Arkansas) were players Austin could see up close and dream to be just like.
“I’m gonna be a top recruit like DeAngelo Williams. I’m gonna have all these other offers and go here or there, but I’m gonna choose to stay home in Memphis and be like a hometown hero,” Austin said.
Problem was that Austin wasn’t just a football star. No, he was a track star as well. Not just a track athlete, a star track athlete. In his last three years of high school he won 9 state championships in track and field. As a sophomore he won the state 200 meters dash championship. As a junior he won the 100 meters, 200 meters (again) and the 400 meters state championships. As a senior he repeated winning the 100, 200, and 400 but added the 4x200 and 4x400 relays to his trophy case.
“Growing up, playing football against my cousins, I knew I was fast because even when I was so much younger than them, I could still go out there and keep up and compete with them. It didn’t look like I was a little kid out there. If I got the ball, they would have to take me seriously to actually get me, so I knew I was fast,” he said.
“The first time I actually knew I was fast is when, I think I want to say I was 7, and my dad signed me up for my first track meet. My dad signed me and my cousin up, and I ran in the 100-meter dash, and I won. After that, that’s when my dad signed me up for track. One track coach for the Memphis Bears — it’s a Shelby Youth Sports SYS league — they had a track team, and his son ran in the meet, and he was the coach. After he saw me run, he was talking to my dad, and that’s when my dad signed me up. I have been running track ever since,” Austin said.
Being such a prolific track star actually hurt Austin’s chance to be recruited for football even though football was his first love. Every college would want him to run track so teams thought it was what he wanted to do since he was so dominant in high school. You see, if you are on scholarship to run track, you are forbidden from playing on the school’s football team. It seems crazy but it is known as the Bear Bryant Rule in college sports.
The Bear Bryant Rule
The Bear Bryant Rule was instituted in 1973. It limited the number of scholarships a college could give to a football program to 85 players. Texas, Alabama and Southern California won seven of nine national titles between 1961 and 1969 because they would bring in hundreds of players to their team knowing that most would never see the field. These were all great players, but Bryant especially would sign players so no other teams could have these kids to compete against him.
On a personal note, I was a high school cornerback and wide receiver in high school. We were the first team from our school to go to the state football championships which we lost in the finals 14-12. I wasn’t great. I was the #3 receiver. I did a lot of blocking and very little pass catching as we were a running team like most were back then. One of my teammates who I was very close with had a father who was the #1 ranked QB in the state of Alabama. He would throw to us, and he had a arm like a cannon. It would bruise my arms and hands, but it was so cool to catch a ball from a guy I considered had a pro arm.
Talking to may friend’s dad, he told us he was given a scholarship to the University of Alabama, and when he arrived he thought he would compete for the starting job. He was told that he was #13 on the depth chart so he had no chance to even get practice reps to prove he had what I took. He ended up switching positions and was the starting safety on their National Championship team in the 60’s. I could not believe a player with his arm was wasted on defense, but that was the reality.
You just bring in players on a track, basketball, baseball, or any other team then play them on the football team so you could in reality have more than 85 players on a football scholarship. So the NCAA closed that loophole by not allowing student athletes from playing on any team they were not on scholarship for.
The problem for Austin was he wasn’t a varsity starter on his high school football team until he was a senior. Most colleges have an idea who they want to offer a scholarship to by a player’s junior year. Even though he had was a 1st Team All-Conference, 1st Team All-Region, 1st Team All-County, 1st Team All-Area as a senior he wasn’t offered a football scholarship.
Memphis still had an interest in him but as a track athlete. “So, the track coach for Memphis kind of got onto me in the spring. He said, ‘You’re too talented of a track athlete for me to let you get out of Memphis. I’m not letting you leave. But I would tell him my only thing is I would love to come to Memphis, but I would need to know that I can play football as well, because wherever I go, whatever college I decided, I was gonna do both,” Austin said.
But he couldn’t do that because of the Bear Bryant Rule, or could they?
“My high school coach was like, I would have to walk on and earn my scholarship through football. I didn’t want to at first because I was kind of thinking, OK, I just won nine state titles, I had a good football season, one basketball season. How would it look if I’m walking on at Memphis?” Austin said.
“That was just my pride and me being cocky and young back then because I was more worried with how people would look at me than the actual best fit and what I would love. So, my dad talked to me, and I kind of put it into perspective like, Memphis is where I want to be. I had a chance to earn my scholarship in Memphis, a place where guys can come in, earn their scholarship and find their way. So, I was like, I’m gonna make that decision, make that move and just grind it out.”
When Austin arrived on campus it didn’t take long to realize there is a huge difference between high school and college football. “I got here and there was a point and I was like, I got some work to do. I’m not catching the ball, I’m not running routes like I want to, the play book is hard,” Austin said.
So Austin redshirted his first year, worked on his game hard while at the same time becoming an All-American on the 4x100 track team. If you have questions about Austin’s speed, here he is running the 2nd leg of the relay. He starts out this leg of the relay in last place, a distant last place. That is until the end of the leg.
Austin became a member of the football team in the 2017 season, but he still had to earn his way to snaps with a team full of high octane players. Antonio Gipson, Kenneth Gainwell, Darrell Henderson, Patrick Taylor, and Tony Pollard were all ahead of him in the pecking order. Although he only dressed for 4 games, he did see some playing time. Here is his first touch as a member of the team, late in a game in a blowout win. It showed the team (players and coaches) previews of the future and why he was there in the first place.
Austin shows some real nice vision on the play for a player who hasn’t played much and has been sitting on the sideline all game. This was a handoff, not a reception on a jet sweep that Austin takes to the house. He makes some really nice quick cuts to get through traffic then out into the clear. Even the defender who looks like he has great speed and the angle on Austin has no shot at catching him. Austin is listed at 5’ 9” and only 160 lbs, but you can see he is not a rail thing guy like many other speedsters. Also being so short but with decent sized thighs he has very good contact balance so he is not easy to knock over.
Through his first 2 seasons on the Memphis football team Austin had a mere 19 receptions for 339 yards and 3 TDs. Yet he worked on his craft those two season, learning from peers as well as coaches to improve his game. That work paid of in a big way as he had 137 receptions for 2,202 yards with 19 TDs in 23 games from 2020-21. He added 3 rushing attempts for 83 yards and another TD.
Austin is a player who will be impossible to cover one on one from the slot or off coverage without help over the top. If a defender stops his feet in coverage or hesitates he has no chance to catch back up, like on this play.
This is just a simple jab step inside then break outside which gets Austin in the clear. You can see the defender has to stop his feet to reset, then turn to the left, but by that time it’s too late. Without a safety to that side this will be an immediate read for an pro QB. You would have to believe that Austin is going to destroy this type of matchup. He can just throw the ball high to the outside and let Austin run underneath it.
The NFL is becoming a matchup league so teams are looking for matchup nightmares which Austin is. He can be near unguardable in one on one situations from the slot without some help over top. Here is an example of that on the next clip.
This is a 3rd and 5 from the 10 yard line with the defender playing 8 yards from Austin and bailing out on the snap. Austin is in the slot to the left of the QB with no safety to that side or in the middle of the field. This is like stealing. It’s just a corner route that even though the defender is 8 yards back he is beaten by at least 3 yards into the corner. This is as open as you can get with the ball on time from the QB.
In this situation in the NFL, that slot receiver would have a choice route which means he has a choice of where he wants to go. The defender here is trying to guard against Austin crossing his face, but he could have easily cut inside and caught the TD in the middle of the end zone which is a much easier throw. Point being Austin had a TD whether he went inside or outside, or he had a first down if he hooked up short. This was an easy read, every QB in the NFL would have been looking for Austin on this play.
This next play shows you some of the versatility in routes and the good hands by Austin. He doesn’t have a full route tree yet mainly because Memphis preferred to play him out of the slot a lot where he wasn’t subject to press coverage. The free release along with his lightning fast cutting ability made defenders give him space so they had time to react to his routes. Memphis used that to their advantage.
Austin is running a wheel route here with some pick/rub action included. As Austin heads towards the flat from the slot the outside receiver is cutting in on a skinny post. The rub doesn’t have the correct effect because the outside receiver doesn’t hesitate a split second before he cuts across the field. If he had, Austin could have cut upfield right off his backside which would have made him wide open.
As it stands, the play is successful because the throw is on the money plus Austin shows his quality hands along with the great body control to stay in bounds in the corner of the end zone with a defender in his face.
Just because Austin has an advantage in the slot doesn’t mean that he has to play there on every play. There will be some trepidation with a 5’ 9” player outside. The passes have to be spot on since Austin doesn’t provide a huge target downfield. Yet the prize to be had if he is able to get by his man could be huge. Here if the throw is a couple of more yards downfield, it’s a TD.
You can’t see Austin here since he is out of the picture, but his quick feet come in handy to get away from press coverage. Again playing without a safety over top of Austin a defense is playing with fire. Only the quick recovery by the outside corner plus the short throw (you can see Austin slow slightly then reach back for the ball) kept this from being a 70 yard TD.
This next clip has Austin on the outside again in only his 4th game as a starter back in 2020. This also shows you how raw Austin was as a receiver as he is alone outside with no over coverage but struggles to gain separation against his defender.
There are a lot of wasted steps on this route, but the quick move outside plus the throw that is on the money allow Austin to make a play then turn upfield for the 65 yard TD. Austin has improved a lot as a route runner since this game but still will need some intense work from his position coach in the NFL. Like most (if not all) college players there is a learning curve once they enter the NFL. What is a positive is that Austin is known as a hard worker which should help him in the transition.
What you can see on this play that whenever a defense plays without safety help over the top of Austin they are doing so at their own risk. Austin has some Tyreek Hill type speed since he was clocked by a laser timing system in high school at 4.38/40. Whether that time is accurate or not, Austin has grown and should be faster than he was then. Not only does he has straight line speed, he also has some good vision to find a crease that can get him in the clear with the chance to make a splash play.
To show you the disparity, a defense has playing off coverage without safety help against Austin is this play against USF. This again is stealing as the defense is poised for an all out blitz but then drop into zones at the snap. With his man playing directly over top of him, Austin does the smart thing by running up atop his defender’s toes then a single jab step towards the post then (in stride) back outside and is wide open.
On this 65 yard TD reception Austin is open by 10 yards before the ball even arrives. This is the type of explosive play possibility that NFL teams dream about. The more players a team can accumulate like this, the higher the ceiling their offense has. There are only so many quality cornerbacks on each NFL team and few with the speed to keep up with a player like Austin. That coverage problem is only increased when you are talking about the slot.
Again it is impossible to cover Austin from the slot without over the top help. The reason is that Austin has the ability to cut outside into the clear, cross the face of the defender to the center of the field, or fake one of those moves then run right by you like here.
The Jets do not have a weapon like this. They have a speedy receiver in Jeff Smith, but he is not nearly as sudden or quick as Austin. I like Smith a lot, but the Jets need to use him on more crossing routes and routes where he can leverage the defender then run away from him. Austin has the elite type of speed/quickness that can make a difference to an offense.
It’s not just on deep routes that Austin can be a playmaker. Many teams will play two deep safeties to take away the deep passes, but speed (it has been said) will travel everywhere. Here we see players on the right running left and Austin on a 5 yard drag route across the formation with great results.
This play has a lot of defenders around the ball after the catch, but Austin runs through a arm tackle then splits the defenders and is off to the races. This is what this kind of speed gives you at times; a 55 yard TD on a 3 yard pass in traffic.
Austin has worked hard to become a better player in his time at Memphis. It’s refreshing to see a young man take a hard look at himself and realize that he needs to get better, and that is only going to happen with hard work. He has a intriguing way of looking at his situation. “I wasn’t technically supposed to be here. Since I didn’t get a scholarship, people didn’t think I could play at this level so that’s all in the back of my mind. And really that made me into the receiver and the person I am today because all I know is work.”
You saw earlier where Austin beat his man outside when he was trying to guard against his man going across his face. Here a single hard jab step outside gets a defender to lose that advantage he is playing that way but ends up giving up the inside.
This is a thing of beauty as Austin does a great job of getting his man off him immediately with his quick feet. This is the 2nd game of his senior season so you can see the improvement beating coverage, especially from the outside where he is subject to press coverage. Then you see the elite speed and the sprinter lean as he crosses the goal line.
I have another 10 clips that could show you the similar type of abilities along with his development as he played more. You would expect this from a hard working player who loves football, but there are people who would question his NFL ability citing his track roots. Make no mistake. Austin is a football player who can run track, not a track guy trying to play football. Here is a clip of a football player (not a track guy) making a play, getting dumped with a dirty play, then moving on.
This play is a 19 yard gain but ends with a defender dropping Austin on his head. Austin shows his displeasure with that action by giving a slight push to the tackler. Once he sees the flag come out for the infraction, Austin just tosses the ball back to the ref like it is like any other play. A football player is used to contact. He doesn’t like a cheap shot, but the longer you play the odds increase you will get one. Once the flag comes out Austin shows great restraint to accept the 15 yards and move on. That is not only a football player but a guy who is a team player. He cares about the team rather than himself.
Oh yeah. Do you want to see a heads up player who knows the rules then takes advantage of them? ustin had 29 punt returns in his career. This was #25, he knew the rules and then took advantage of them. Memphis won this game by two points.
I personally like Austin as a player. He could be a difference maker for any team not just the Jets. I like Braxton Berrios, but Austin I believe has a much higher upside as a slot receiver. Whereas Berrios has return abilities so does Austin. Elijah Moore was injured at points this season which limited his production to 11 games 43 receptions, 528 yards and 5 TDs. He is your third slot player, so Austin could take the place of Jamison Crowder who I also like but is a free agent plus has been injured so often.
I really believe that the slot is a vital part of an offense so you always need a player there who the defense respects or fears. With so many hybrid defenses coming up, a slot player with elite talents poses great threats to opposing defensive coordinators. Not only are they chain movers, but players like Moore and Austin have zone breaking qualities that can make splash plays, thus changing the game. With injuries an inevitability, it is wise to have 3 slot receivers that are also play makers on the team.
I also think it is imperative that the Jets have somewhere our 2nd year QB has to throw the ball quickly if needed. I believe Zach Wilson really came on after he came back from his injury better than he was before. He is a hard working kid who should progress in his 2nd year as long as the Jets provide him some help. Every asset we can give Zach will only help his development.
A 5’ 9” player (who has blazing speed) is much harder to hit that a 6’ 2” player with modest speed. Austin’s QB (who had a sub 60% completions) struggled at times to get him the ball. Austin didn’t have many drops at Memphis, but his QB only completed 53% of targets (63 of 119) in 2020 and 58% (74 of 127) in 2021. So it will be paramount that Austin and his QB get to know each other well, and that comes with practice. It will be a process that could take some time.
Memphis players in the past have been looked at as lesser than players coming from some of the power conferences. Antonio Gipson (3rd round), Tony Pollard (4th round), Darrell Henderson (3rd round), and Kenneth Gainwell (5th round) are examples.
Austin played well against Cincinnati (7 receptions for 121 yards) while being guarded mostly by Ahmad (Sauce) Gardner who is going to be a 1st round pick in the NFL Draft this year. So I doubt any of the doubters.
Austin is known as a high character player and person. In the last two years at Memphis he had 12 games of over 100 yards receiving (in 23 games) with two of those games being a least 200 yards. He holds the school record for having 5 straight games with 100 yards receiving. Upon that accomplishment he had this to say: “It’s really been a dream, It’s surreal. It’s just a testament to God and my faith in him. I really just haven’t had time to think about it. It’s just been week after week after week just having to forget about the last game and prepare for the next one. At the end of the season, I feel like I’ll really be able to put it into perspective, but it’s still happening so fast. I’m just thankful.”
Austin made himself into the player he is today. He went from being a unknown guy on the back end of a roster to being on the Biletnikoff watch list, the award given to the best receiver in the nation.
Austin’s coach at Memphis is a believer in dual sport athletes, he stated, “Dual sport guys, you see the shiftiness on the field. There’s all this research that dual sport athletes in high school have a higher success rate in the NFL. I do think one it shows his competitive nature. Let’s start with that. A guys that’s able to run track and also be a football player and do it at a high level is kind of eye-opening.”
The Jets need help, not from high priced free agents but from developmental players in the draft. They need players who can grow alongside Zach Wilson. This Draft has some difference makers in it. Only time will tell, but I will continue to bring you players who could be of interest to the Jets
I currently have a late 2nd round grade on Austin with more tape to watch in the future. He still has some work to do running routes and understanding what the defense is try to do. After he runs at the Combine he will no longer be a guy in the no one knows about.
That’s what I think.
What do you think?