The Pittsburgh Steelers added one of the smallest players in the 2022 NFL Draft in the fourth round with the selection of wide receiver Calvin Austin III out of Memphis. As you might guess, however, they don’t believe that he plays to his listed 5’9”, 162-pound frame (though he measured closer to 5’8” in the pre-draft process).
As head coach Mike Tomlin pointed out, his great speed helps him to overcome some of the natural advantages that his height might pose against NFL-level defensive talent. But Austin attributes his ability to compete with his frame to something else.
“I would just say my heart. When I get out there, it has never been a thing where I’m just like, ‘Man, these guys are big’”, he told reporters yesterday following rookie minicamp practice, via Noah Strackbein of AllSteelers. “I’ve never felt that way. When I get out there, I’m a dog, so I’m just ready for whatever competition, whoever’s in front of me, and when I’m on the field, I have no fear”.
So how exactly do you end up becoming a standout 5’8” wide receiver at a school like Memphis? Well, it starts with getting overlooked by others. Austin spoke about living a football life full of that narrative, and volunteered that it’s one of the things that fuels him.
“I would go to camps and have great showings. I’d run a fast 40, but they’d also be like, ‘Your size’, and ‘You need to get bigger’, or ‘your weight’ and stuff”, he said about responses he would get from coaches and scouts about his performance. “I wrote down in my phone in my notes—I keep it—of all the things that people or coaches have said to me in the past about that, so that’s kind of my motivation”.
There are, of course, plenty of professional athletes, or rather would-be professional athletes, who consider themselves driven by the criticism of their supposed athletic deficiencies who ultimately don’t prove to have the stuff to overcome them.
But then there are people like former Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton, who came into the league as an undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss and bounced around two practice squads before landing in Pittsburgh, and, as a first-year player the following season, began his emergence into one of the best and certainly most versatile slot defenders in the league.
Austin may be short, but he sure packs a bundle of talent into that little frame, and he, like Hilton, relishes the opportunity to demonstrate his physicality, particularly when a defender tries to land a knockout hit. He prides himself on immediately bouncing up from them.
Of course, he hasn’t been leveled by NFL-level defenders too often playing for Memphis. He’ll have his ‘welcome to the NFL’ moment soon enough. But I don’t suspect it will be too much of a concern. Ryan Switzer is another smaller guy who at least knew how to take a hit—he was a “tough little booger”, as Ben Roethlisberger called him—so it certainly can be done.