Talegating: Marvin Austin

He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t smoke, and he doesn’t do any drugs. Whether folks love Marvin Austin or hate him, his fall from grace last year is a man-sized lesson that should be told as a warning to college athletes everywhere:  When the NCAA tells you that not a nickel can come to a player from an agent, they’re serious. And, remember that once you tweet it, you can’t take it back.

Austin was suspended for his entire final season at the University of North Carolina where he had been a highly touted defensive tackle. There were (and still are) allegations that Austin, among other players, took money in transportation costs from an agent in order to attend one of the agent’s parties, and he may have taken money for other things, including an expensive watch. The school (loosely) suggested that there might have been some academic issues as well, but then another, perhaps even deeper problem surfaced...

Austin had developed a habit of tweeting things as they came into his thoughts, which led on several occasions to difficulties. Agents and scouts admitted that some of their concerns over Austin’s character were from people close to the UNC program, but that others were directly linked to his Twitter account. Austin has had to learn the hard way that once you tweet it, it’s out there essentially forever - 36 pages of photos and statements still exist from his long-since deleted account.

Austin has always had a gregarious side to his personality that matched his defensive tackle-sized body on the gridiron - big, strong, and sometimes out of control. He used his Twitter as part trash-talking, part profanity and part personal diary outlet and that may have given some people the wrong ideas about his personal life. On two occasions, Austin was interspersing his feelings on being tired of being broke with suggestions that he was about to go on a shopping spree. Austin's Tar Heels teammate Greg Little said that he was always talking to the young man about how much more careful he needed to be with his comments. The school agreed - firmly.

As far as the athletic department is concerned, players are "responsible for what they post, the same way as if they’d said it at a press conference," UNC spokesman Steve Kirschner said. Many young players see Twitter as an extension of the ‘say what you want’ personal commentary approach that they developed between junior high and high school. Colleges want their athletes to know that Twitter and Facebook are just extensions of any personal statements that they might make in the media. That was one of the problems that Austin found himself run afoul of.

Background

Marvin Austin was born on January 1, 1989 in Washington, D.C., the son of single mother Donna Johnson. In 2005, he helped Coolidge High School in Washington, D.C. to the DC I-AA title game for the first time since 1986. He then transferred to Ballou High School for his senior year and led Ballou to its first D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association title in 2006. He was named High School All-Metro First Team by The Washington Post in 2005 and 2006 and then played in the 2007 U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

From high school, Austin was recruited by top programs around the country including Florida State University, the University of Southern California and the University of Tennessee. Austin was considered an elite prospect and was ranked third overall in the country in Scout.com's final rankings: he was also named as USA Today's National Defensive Player of the Year. On National Signing Day 2007, Austin committed to play his collegiate ball at the University of North Carolina. Once there, he quickly began to carve out a name for himself.

As a true freshman in 2007, Austin played in all 12 of his team's games and started in three. He finished the season with 26 tackles, 6 tackles for losses, and 4 sacks. In 2008, Austin played in 13 games and started 11. He tied with E.J. Wilson for most tackles by a Carolina defensive lineman with 38, had 1.5 tackles for loss, one sack, an interception (returned for touchdown), and one blocked kick. His improvement was quick.

His junior year saw him truly reach his stride, and what he contributed matched or exceeded his previous career-highs in nearly every category, including tackles (42), tackles for loss (six) and sacks (four) on his way to earning second-team All-ACC honors. There was talk about going out for the draft after that season, but Austin had two reasons to not do so - he felt that he needed the extra year to work on hand placement and technique, and he loved the college life, if not its finances. Then came the problems with the NCAA.

I won’t get into my feelings about the revenue system in college football - it’s a complex subject, and it easily becomes a hostile discussion. I will say that the rules may not be fully fair to the athletes from poor (or middle class) families and that they sometimes seem to have been implemented and enforced, over time, on a less than consistent basis. If Austin took money from an agent - and UNC now claims that amount to be in the range of $10,000 to $13,000 - he knew better. The team goes over that kind of thing each year. Perhaps he did take funds and perhaps not - the question isn’t fully answered by the NCAA yet, even with the school year behind him. There’s little question that the school also implied that his social media commentary tendencies didn’t help him any, and I don’t see that as being as clearly linked as others may. In any case, Austin lost out when he missed the 2010 season and the time and experience it would have given him. Whether it made a lasting impression on him in terms of keeping his life straightened out is a different story - one that will be told not that long after he gets his first checks from the NFL. Right now, he’s saying, and doing, all the right things.

Austin had 106 tackles (59 solo), nine sacks (eight solo), 13.5 tackles for loss, 13 quarterback hurries, four passes defensed, and one forced fumble over three seasons at UNC. His body of work spoke for itself, in one sense, but he also saw that getting the chance to remind coaches and scouts to really want to watch his game film again would come for him once in the East-West Shrine Game and again in the National Invitational Combine.  Austin needed to make waves at both.

East-West Shrine Game

Austin wasn’t asked to be a part of the Senior Bowl, and the reason given the public was a lack of support by his college coaches. That had to hurt, but if anything, Austin used it as a way to really get up for the week of the Shrine Game:  it and the Combine would be his opportunities to prove that he hadn’t slacked off at all while being without direct supervision. Would he come in overweight, or out of the kind of ‘football shape’ that is so hard to match without being on the field? 

Marvin did first take a few months off to rest his body when the suspension was announced - he’d been in football since he was about 13, and he sensibly wanted to use the opportunity to let his body rest and to let any lingering dings and sore spots to heal fully. Following that, Austin had been training at the Saddlebrook Resort facility in Tampa for three months prior to the Shrine Game, and showed up for the week’s activities at 312 lbs, in excellent shape in the upper and lower body and quickly showed that he had good stamina as well. Wes Bunting commented, “...you can tell he has been working hard.” That answered a big, looming question - if he’s immature and unmotivated, as some understandably alleged, would he be so well prepared physically for that week and that game? Austin promptly dominated most of the other players during the practices leading up to the game. Question 2 - had his skills deteriorated in the time off - was answered as well. Austin was still a heck of a player.

Tony Pauline of DraftInsider.net noted that on Tuesday, the first day of practice, Austin took a while to get back into the movements of the game, but that he became harder and harder to stop as the day went on. By Wednesday, Austin was dominant. The North finally went to double-teaming and/or holding him to stop him during the afternoon sessions. It still didn’t stop him, but late in the day, he became tired from the constant double teams, many of which he still broke through. Aaron Aloysius of DraftBreakdown.com wrote,

Coming off a year-long suspension, North Carolina defensive tackle Marvin Austin did well for himself by showing up at a solid 312 lbs. He didn’t look slow or out of shape in practice, where the big man made a sizable impact. In 11 on 11s, Austin quickly disengaged from a block before making a nice stop. And on a passing play, he managed to get his hands up and deflect a Ricky Dobbs pass, adding to what was a good day for the DT.

Chad Reuter of CBS Sports was quick to say that Austin “[s]tarted off strong in one-on-one drills. He flashed quick hands and feet to bull-rush or run around mid-tier prospects such as Missouri State guard David Arkin… Though it was a solid practice, scouts might want to see more to consider Austin a top-50 prospect, especially considering he was so highly touted as a prep and expectations were through the roof entering the season.” Finally, Draftbreakdown.com said, “While Austin still needs to improve his technique (Note: as he did when his junior year ended), he beat interior lineman with both speed and strength, displaying an impressive skill set that will appeal to many NFL teams.“ Marvin’s first opportunity was well-handled, as was his play during the Shrine game.

The National Invitational Combine

With an impressive performance at the Shrine game behind him, Austin would have one more major chance to attract scouts, coaches and managers - the Combine. Marvin, by any standard, made the most of it. He tied with Auburn's Nick Fairley with the best 40 time among all defensive tackles (4.84), and the best 10-yard split (1.64 on the number that best measures initial explosion, a measurement that has gained traction as an actual indicator of on-field performance for linemen). Austin’s explosive first step had now been timed. Only Oregon State's Stephen Paea threw up more 225-pound reps at the bench press than Austin's 38, showing how strong Austin was in relation to the other players there (watching how he abused offensive linemen at the Shrine Game and the practices showed his weight room strength as functional strength in action - he rag-dolled some of the players who went against him). He also posted the Combine’s best time in the 20-yard shuttle for DTs (4.40), and the third-best time in the 3-cone drill. Said Football Outsiders:

It was a triumphant return to form that had to impress even those who throw such measurables out the window as a matter of course. The fact that Austin had himself in that kind of shape without the aid of an organized football program spoke loudly for his work ethic and intensity. The suspension may have had a good effect on him, whether it was called for or not.

Draft Scouting

Austin will be looked at more carefully than many of the other prospects, since he has to face the difficult questions on his character and actions. In an interview on NFL Network, Austin stated clearly that he’d addressed all questions directly and honestly, with no attempt to maneuver or avoid difficult answers. He also mentioned that he doesn’t drink, smoke or do any drugs, and that after being fully honest with the scouts, he considers the situation over. It’s a short video, but worth watching. He appears to be staying honest - his voice is level, his eyes focus clearly straight ahead and his body language appears to be as open as you can tell on video and under such circumstances. What the NFL representatives get from a 15-minute interview and from visits will have a huge effect on where in the draft he will go. Often, a player won’t be interviewed by the team that takes him, in an attempt to practice deception. With Austin, I’d expect whoever takes him to use every chance to get to know him better.

Overall Analysis

Austin is a physically powerful player who has dominated during much of his college career, and who did so despite being ‘out of training’ in the Shrine Game and during the Combine. He lets his pads climb at times and loses battles that he can win due to sloppy leverage, but much of that is fixable with coaching. He’s got a very explosive first step, but sometimes loses track of where the ball is and needs his head on a better swivel. He can also penetrate (probably best as a single-gapper or undertackle), and he isn’t just your average run-stuffing 4-3 NT.

He seems to have had occasional gap discipline issues in the past which are harmed by his tendency to slant past blocks off the snap - but that’s also coachable. Austin likes to use a solid rip move and to get violent with his hands in order to win leverage. He’s got great short-area quickness that shows when he's asked to loop outside, and he has a nice spin move that works well for a guy his size (6-foot-2, 309 pounds). Considering the number of players who come out of college with little more than a bull rush and a sense of complacency,  Austin is far more developed than many even without the benefit of his senior year.

Austin isn’t much of a ‘form’ tackler - he likes to launch himself, often leaving his feet, and he gets some very big hits and some very embarrassing missed tackles due to that. The tendency he has in getting too high is a problem in tackling as well as in fighting the OL. There’s really nothing that can’t be overcome with consistent coaching, though. Learning the importance of pad level can take a while for young DTs.

I’ve talked before about the aspects of a college player’s game that gets into his scouting reports during his first one or two seasons and then show up long after they've been overcome. Austin seems to have a couple - I watched him a few times during his junior year, and I couldn’t see him having a lot of trouble in his phone book quickness and balance - quite the opposite - yet both show up. You have NFLDraftScout.com saying

Tackling: Surprising balance and lateral agility to break down in tight quarters and make the open-field tackle against small and quick athletes. Good strength to pull down ballcarriers while being occupied by blockers. Good hustle laterally and downfield. 

Meanwhile Doug Farrar of Football Outsiders commented contrapuntally,

Now, the bad news. As fast as Austin is, he's about as far from being a consistent form tackler as he could be, given his talent and effectiveness. At times, it seems as if he's almost surprised by the quickness with which he gets to the ball carrier, and it takes an extra split second for his hands to catch up. He gets in an area, and he turns into a Baby Huey at times. He's just as apt to bump into one of his teammates as he is to disrupt a play.

So, which one is it? Both have been true, in degree. But the technically more advanced Austin is the more recent of the two, and he’s done well in working to overcome his weaknesses. The fact that he shows the ability to recognize his need to identify and overcome those weaknesses, his appearance for both postseason events in top shape, and his dominance at each, must have in confluence helped him in the eyes of the NFL's scouts and general managers. He won’t be given a pass for his prior actions, nor should he, but he has done everything that he can to minimize the damage.

Austin probably won’t go in the first round as he was once expected to do, but either of Denver's picks in the second round (more likely the later one, but either is fine) would be a good way for the Broncos to pick up Von Miller in the first and still walk away with two solid DL players in, say, Marvin Austin and Stephen Paea. Austin is more of a single-gap penetrator, and Paea more of a two-gap run stuffer, although each is far from only that. Miller is the kind of linebacker that doesn’t come about all that often, and Denver needs newer and better LB material as much as better DL material. Both could be managed, although Denver won’t solve all their problems in one draft..

Of course, Mike LB Martez Wilson out of Illinois, selected perhaps with Denver's first 2nd-rounder, with a top DL player like Austin taken next wouldn’t go amiss either (both Casey Mathews and Greg Jones are increasingly being talked about as Will LBs more than Mikes, so we’ll wait to see on that. Post Combine, Jones was reportedly getting a push up the boards at MLB). New Broncos head coach John Fox is also said to man-lust after Illini RB Mikel Leshoure: it’s possible that Denver will get a chance at him without trading down - which is also, after all, an option. The draft is deep in areas where Denver needs help - especially DL, LB and RB. It’s less so in terms of OL, but with good scouting, good players can be found in the middle and later rounds. A new right tackle may be in the works, a TE will be needed, and even another guard would potentially help. It’s a lot to do in one draft - too much, in fact. If there is a legit free agency period, that would be a great help. Either way, it’s more than a one-year job. Another safety is pretty much a necessity, but Denver may need to work through free agency to get one.

Conclusions

Marvin Austin showed himself to be an immature young man who was too amenable to a crooked agent’s suggestions as to how he could obtain the money that he didn’t have. People, and young people in particular who don’t have any money, are more often vulnerable to that kind of difficulty. He loved to talk and to tweet, and he frequently wasn’t as circumspect with that as would have served him better, but he was from a tough background and has, according to several sources, something of a natural flamboyance, something that is hardly an uncommon trait among NFL players. The way he stayed in shape over the unsupervised months leading up to the postseason events and the way that he dominated other players at the Shrine Game and practices coupled with the way that he ranked in the Combine should help to offset some of the concerns that teams will have about him. They say that it only takes one team to believe you and believe in you, and Austin is the kind of player that this saying was made for.

Warren Sapp had some controversial incidents in his amateur career, starting when he knocked a player out during a game in high school. Taking money from agents was less carefully monitored back then - I’m not suggesting that Sapp did so, only that other players did and were often not either caught or disciplined if they were. Sapp was a flamboyant, ebullient, outgoing person back in college, during his NFL career, and still now in his time in broadcasting since retiring. Austin may not be the kind of unique player that Sapp was, but there are overall similarities. Both can change the nature of a game with a single play. Austin doesn’t have all of Sapp’s skillset (few will), but he’s a powerful, natural single-gap, penetrating player who has shown that he can come back from adversity and has proved the maturity to get and keep himself in shape during months off from supervised practices.

Stephen Paea and Marvin Austin are two of my favorites from the likely second-round prospects (and Paea may still go in the first), but they aren’t at all the only options, nor the only ones that I like. We’ll be talking about Jurrell Casey from USC in the next couple of weeks, and there could easily be others, depending on how the run on DE and DT players goes once the draft begins. We can start by hoping that Blaine Gabbert, Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Ryan Mallett, Colin Kaepernick and Christian Ponder all become desperately wanted additions to some teams’ rosters, thereby diminishing the number of DL players taken. Even then, Broncos fans should desire that DEs be taken whenever possible rather than DTs for the same reason - Denver might take a DE, but they are more likely to want to solve the problem with the motley in the middle - the level of talent of the Broncos' DTs hasn’t been a strong suit in a long time, and in their new 4-3, getting those DTs obtained and up to speed is essential. Of course, upgrading the LB corp would also help the front seven, and that, more than anything, is what Denver has to find in order to get back to the business of winning.

Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

You can reach Doc at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or follow him on Twitter @alloverfatman

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