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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Small, quick Tavon Austin likely to be among top 10 picks

West Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin (1) gestures

West Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin (1) gestures to the crowd before a punt during a game against Marshall in Morgantown, W.Va. (Sept. 1, 2012) Credit: AP

At 5-8, 174 pounds, Tavon Austin will likely be the smallest player taken in the first round Thursday night. But the star receiver out of West Virginia also might be the one to determine what happens at the top end of the first round.

Call him the little big man of this year's NFL draft.

Speedy wide receiver. Kick returner. Punt returner. And yes, even a part-time running back. Austin can do just about everything.

"He is a very explosive football player," said Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, who reportedly is interested in moving up from No. 23 overall to take Austin as a replacement for the recently traded Percy Harvin. "For his size, it's amazing what he does from a return standpoint, what he did from a receiver standpoint, and what he did in that Oklahoma game from a running back standpoint. He's a pretty unique football player."

Ah, that Oklahoma game. In a 50-49 loss to the Sooners on Nov. 17 at West Virginia, Austin put together one of the most amazing individual performances of the 2012 college season. Or any college season, for that matter. Austin rushed for a school-record 344 yards and two touchdowns on only 21 carries and caught four passes for 82 yards.

"It kind of reminded me of my high school days," he said. "That was the first game I played running back that whole year."

Special player. Absolutely. Which is why Austin has drawn the attention of many teams in the first round. And that includes the Jets, who had him in for a visit earlier this month and will consider him with one of their two first-round picks. The Jets have the No. 9 overall pick, and acquired the 13th selection from the Bucs in Sunday's Darrelle Revis trade.

But the Jets will have plenty of competition, because Austin will be in high demand. There's even some thought that the Eagles, who have the fourth overall pick and already have another diminutive, all-purpose player, DeSean Jackson, might take him. That could be a stretch, considering Jackson's similar talents. But that's the kind of buzz Austin has created with his breakaway speed in the 40-yard dash (in the 4.25 range) and instinctive elusiveness.

Austin had a breakout season in 2012 with 114 catches, 1,289 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also rushed for 643 yards and three touchdowns, and returned 15 punts for 165 yards and a touchdown and 33 kickoffs for 813 yards and a TD.

The biggest knock on Austin: being small. In such a physical sport, there are concerns that he might not be able to absorb the punishment from tacklers who outweigh him by more than 100 pounds.

But Austin said he isn't worried about the physical risk at the NFL level. "It definitely shouldn't be a problem," he said. "I haven't gotten hurt or missed a game in eight years. My durability's pretty good."

Even so, there's still a risk for a player so small. But it's not big enough to dissuade many teams, including the Jets, from giving serious consideration to taking Austin in the top 10.

"I've been a little guy my whole life," Austin said. "I'm a little guy, but I play big."

The player he models his game after is another small man in a big man's sport: Broncos receiver Wes Welker, who emerged as a star during his years with the Patriots.

"That's my No. 1 guy," Austin said of Welker. "I watch a lot of tape of him. I think I'm a little quicker and faster than him. So I figure if he can do it, then I can do it, too."

Austin will find out tomorrow where he ends up next. And if the predraft chatter is any indication, the little big man will be the center of attention early on.

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