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How Calvin Austin III got his groove back: Steelers speedster leaves lost year in the dust | Football

How Calvin Austin III got his groove back: Steelers speedster leaves lost year in the dust | Football

Jun. 25—He hasn’t even played a game yet in the NFL, but Calvin Austin III already is something of a footnote in the Steelers-Ravens rivalry.

The 138th pick in the 2022 draft, Austin went one spot before Baltimore at No. 139. But the Ravens also were on the clock at No. 130, when they took Penn State punter Jordan Stout. Peter King of NBC Sports was embedded with their front office for the day and later wrote that someone in the draft room blurted out, “Gotta be kidding me,” as the Steelers scooped up Austin.

Yes, the Ravens had their chance, but they prioritized a specialist instead (and took tight end Isaiah Likely with Austin gone). More than a year later, and after a rookie season lost to a foot injury, Austin can reflect on the what-if.

“Man, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been thinking about that,” Austin said before the Steelers finished minicamp earlier this month. “It’s wild. It’s one of those things where you know, obviously, I’m blessed and I’m just so 100% glad that I came here. I’d be lying if I said that hasn’t been on my mind since the draft, since that came out.”

Austin just smiles and shakes his head. On one hand, it’s nice to know you were wanted by more than just the team that drafted you. On the other …

“It’s personal,” he admits. “But that will all be settled out, lord willing, this year and the times we see them. I just have it circled. Crazy. A punter, huh?”

It will be fun for Austin to face the Ravens for the first time, but he’s having fun now. Back healthy and back making plays on the practice field, Austin still has a host of firsts ahead of him.

First NFL catch, first snap, even his first preseason game. His debut has yet to come, all because of that injury last year during training camp and a subsequent setback when he tried to return. For Austin, OTAs and minicamp were about getting back up to speed, figuratively and literally, after having surgery in the fall.

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As soon as Austin was healthy enough to run routes, he and Kenny Pickett worked together in Pittsburgh. Austin also attended the throwing session Pickett organized in Florida back in March. Just this weekend, he was a guest at Pickett’s wedding in New Jersey.

“During the year, we weren’t able to get the chemistry down, but we were still able to talk throughout the season,” Austin said. “It’s been a continuous building of chemistry. We couldn’t do it during the season, but it really never stopped.”

In that time, Austin was seeing less of Pickett and more of Garrett Giemont, Marcel Pastoor and John Norwig. They would be the Steelers’ senior conditioning coordinator, head strength coach and, until June 5, longtime athletic trainer.

Austin went back home to Memphis for a couple weeks after the season ended, but he’s lived there his entire life, including his college years. While he was happy to go live at his parents’ house again, spending time with them and his sisters, Austin decided he’d rather spend most of his offseason here in Pittsburgh recovering at the team facility.

According to Austin, he put on more muscle, which he didn’t think was possible. He came to the Steelers with a body fat percentage around 5, but now it’s “4 point something; you can’t go much lower.” At the combine, he weighed 170 pounds and on the roster he’s listed at 162. Austin called 170 his “walking weight,” and he plans to report to training camp around there, fully expecting to sweat off a lot of it in the dog days of August.

“I’ve learned a lot about taking care of my body,” Austin said. “Right now it’s more about conditioning — getting my hamstrings, my ankles, my calves used to the power and the cuts and long [route] running. It’s just a continuous process of learning me and my body. I’ve just learned a lot from my rookie season from talking to some vets, talking to ‘Wig.’ Until you go through it, you don’t realize how much of a grind that is.”

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Austin joked that he and Norwig were “locked in” for much of last season, and that he sort of feels like Norwig’s final project.

“Hopefully, he can look back this year and be like, ‘I’m thankful to see someone I helped get back to 100% out there doing his thing,'” Austin said, although that “100%” is a bit of a complicated matter.

“I do feel as fast, but honestly, I think by the time August comes, I’ll feel my full speed. It’s like I’m there, but I still know I’ve got a little more in the tank. I’m in a position now where I feel well enough to know I can go to those next three or four gears.”

One more gear might be all Austin needs to provide to give the Steelers a puzzle piece they didn’t have in last year’s offense. Steven Sims (now in Houston) was quick and shifty, but the big reason why the Steelers — and Ravens — wanted Austin was his 4.32 40-yard dash speed.

It’s a receiving corps that has Diontae Johnson and George Pickens on the outside, with veteran Allen Robinson likely slotting in on the inside. But it’s easy to foresee using Austin on screens or jet sweeps or really any method of getting the ball in his hands in space. Simply going in motion pre-snap or at the snap could make him a useful decoy, chum in the water for opposing defenses.

“We’re still massaging his role,” wide receivers coach Frisman Jackson said. “We’re putting him in different places, just finding out what he’s good at in a natural role for him and using his strengths and his talents to exploit the defense. Thank god we’ve got training camp coming up and we’re not playing tomorrow, because we can still find out what his role is.”

Jackson added that Austin has shown the kind of “speed and explosiveness” the coaches loved pre-injury. Just shy of 5-foot-8, Austin will need to rely on that athleticism to carve out a place for himself in the NFL.

But, schematically, it will be up to offensive coordinator Matt Canada to figure out where Austin fits as a fourth receiver with huge-play potential.

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“You were all there at [training] camp last year,” Canada told reporters last week. “What Calvin brings to the table and his unique skill set is something that I am excited about and I know our whole staff and organization is excited about.”

Najee Harris is excited, too. Harris has had plenty of touches through his first two seasons and not always a lot of running room.

Austin is another passing-game target for Pickett, whom he’s been bonding with since they came in together, but also “kind of a unicorn.” At least that’s how Harris referred to him.

“You can put him in the backfield, at slot — everywhere,” Harris said. “I think he’s going to be featured a lot. He’s going to put a lot of pressure on defenses. He’ll help out all of us, just seeing him line up anywhere.”

Lining up at all will be a nice start for Austin. At his size, durability will be a question that follows him throughout his career.

But in an ideal world, he’ll be in good shape and in a groove by Oct. 8. That’s Week 5, when the Steelers play host to the Ravens. Maybe Austin will even be back deep waiting to catch a punt from Stout. He’s had no shortage of time to envision that scenario.

“Trust me,” Austin said with a grin, “I’ve thought all about that.”

Brian Batko: [email protected] and Twitter @BrianBatko.


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  • June 25, 2023