Ryan Silverfield was the offensive line coach and run game coordinator for the Memphis Tigers in 2018 when the diminutive wide receiver by the name of Calvin Austin III first walked into the building. Not just short, but small, he was a true freshman who walked on in 2017, even though he would redshirt that year. it was not the most memorable first impression.
“I just remember this scrawny — probably 149 pounds at the time — just this little guy who looked like a little kid”, Silverfield, now the head coach, told Brian Batko for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He sat in the back of the team room, and I was just like, ‘What is this? This is not a good fit here’”.
Of course, things have a way of working themselves out, and Austin put his skills on tape, and on the field. While he didn’t have a big role in the offense until 2020, his last two seasons showed what he can do. He caught 63 passes for 1,053 yards and 11 touchdowns that year, and followed it up in 2021 with 74 catches for 1,149 yards and eight touchdowns. He also had three combined rushing and return touchdowns during that time.
Despite standing at just under 5’8” and weighing in at 170 pounds at the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine, Austin’s defining trait is what stood out most. That would be his pure speed, exemplified by his 4.32-second 40-yard dash time. Despite his small stature, it was enough to get him drafted in the fourth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers to plug into an offense led by Matt Canada that should have a plan for how to use him.
“He can benefit from doing that stuff, so that’s why I think it’s a unique fit, system-wise, because Matt does do fly sweeps, does do motion”, Silverfield told Batko of his former receiver’s opportunity in Pittsburgh. “So if you’re still worried about Calvin’s size, I don’t think you need to be because they’ll be able to move him around so much”.
Silverfield presumably knows a thing or two about the Steelers’ intentions for Austin that we don’t, considering they would have naturally spoken to him a number of times during the pre-draft process in order to get a sense of the player.
Pittsburgh has natural connections to Memphis (head coach Mike Tomlin was even a graduate assistant there in 1996), but still, just by the very nature of his skillset, one would imagine that any team willing to invest in a player like Austin will have ideas in mind about how to maximize what he can offer, and that includes finding ways to get him the ball in space.
Entering the 2022 season, Austin will have to fight for playing time behind Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson, along with fellow rookie George Pickens, who was drafted two rounds earlier. This is really the first year with Canada as offensive coordinator in which he is expected to run an offense that truly reflects his intentions, so it will be interesting to see how the Memphis product fits into that.