Antonio Freeman and Tavon Austin are both natives of Baltimore. Though Freeman is roughly 20 years Austin's senior, they run in the same circles, have a lot of mutual acquaintances.
Knowing Freeman as a Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion, Austin looked up to Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame wide receiver. In the early days of Austin's college career at the University of West Virginia, he would approach Freeman and tell him, "I want to work out with you, I want to get my game better, I want to be the best."
Freeman knew it would be best to wait, however. He didn't want his instruction flying in the face of what Austin's college coaches were telling him.
"When it's time for you to transition to the NFL, that's where I can be a more prominent role for you," Freman would tell him.
But Austin was getting the itch. Following a stellar junior year in college in which he had 101 receptions for 1,186 yards and eight touchdowns as well as two more scores on kick returns, he had thoughts of entering the Draft and sought out Freeman for advice.
There's not a doubt that Austin could have played professionally in 2012. Still, Freeman was a straight shooter with him. He told Austin, "This is the difference between a couple hundred thousand dollars and a couple million dollars in your pocket."
Austin heeded the advice.
It was at that point Freeman knew how humble Austin was, that he could pass up the lure to join the NFL to return for his senior season in college and then become an even higher draft choice a year later.
Fast forward to the present day. The time has come for Austin to make the jump to professional football, and Freeman is making good on his promise.
The Baltimore Boys Work Together
Today, Freeman calls Fort Lauderdale, Fla. home and drives to Orlando where Austin is working out with Coach Tom Shaw, one of many trainers around the country that work with NFL prospects on speed, power, agility and quickness in preparation for the NFL Combine and their college pro day.
Austin is one three wide receivers Freeman is working with on their craft, all of them having signed on with Freeman's former agent, Joel Segal. Along with Virginia Tech wide receivers Corey Fuller and Marcus Davis, the trio are learning tricks of the trade from Freeman in the weeks and months leading up to April's Draft.
At the NFL Combine, Fuller gave a glimpse into the insight Freeman has shared with him: "Staying low on my routes, making everything looks the same coming out of my break more smoothly, coming back to the ball, attacking the ball."
The connection between mentor and his protégés runs deep. Fuller is also a Baltimore native and played for Freeman's alma mater at Virginia Tech.
Freeman views the work he's doing with these young players as an extension of his foundation, B'MoreFree Programs, that works with underprivileged children to help eliminate the stereotypes of being poor and hungry and level the playing field in order to give these kids a fair opportunity to learn.
For right now, giving back is assisting these athletic but unpolished receivers, turning them into what pro scouts want to see and helping them realize their dreams of playing on Sundays. It's been fun for Freeman because he says he's working with naturally-talented athletes, which also makes his job easier.
With Fuller, he's working with a track star who's just coming into his own as a football player. Fuller began the season as the No. 4 wide receiver for the Hokies but finished the year as a favorite target of quarterback Logan Thomas by catching 43 passes for 815 yards and six touchdowns.
Fuller's track background makes him a stretch-the-field deep threat, and he impressed at the Combine with a 40 time of 4.43 seconds, tied for seventh best among more than 30 wide receivers.
The pedigree is there for Fuller too. His older brother is Vincent Fuller who played as a defensive back for seven years in the NFL for the Tennesee Titans and the Detroit Lions. His younger brother is Kyle Fuller, an up-and-coming cornerback for Virginia Tech that looks to be playing in the NFL next year.
"I think Corey Fuller can definitely be a surprise for a lot of people," Freeman said in an exclusive interview by phone with Cheesehead TV. "I think his athletic ability and his talent and just the upside on him is great because he's still a project. You can still mold him into what you want him to be on your football team."
Fuller said he met with the Packers at the East-West Shrine Game, but he's a late-round prospect, not quite in the same class as Austin who's climbing up draft boards.
Back to Austin
Despite Fuller's track background, Austin did even better in the 40 by clocking in at 4.34 seconds, tied for second best among wide receivers, behind only Texas Longhorns Olympian Marquise Goodwin. Austin's 20-yard shuttle time of 4.01 seconds was tied for second best among receivers too.
But it's his exploits on the field that really have NFL teams salivating. By coming back to college for his senior season, all Austin did was catch 111 passes for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns. He had one touchdown each on punt and kick returns too.
West Virginia also utilized Austin as a running back, not unlike how the Packers used Randall Cobb in 2012. On 73 carries, he ran for 652 yards (8.9 ypc) and three touchdowns. All told, he was worth 2,917 all-purpose yards in 2012, 572 of which came in one game against Oklahoma, just missing out on the NCAA's all-time single-game record of 578.
"It kind of reminded me of my high school days," said Austin. "That was the first game I played running back that whole year."
Austin is a threat akin to Minnesota Vikings receiver Percy Harvin whom Freeman also trained before the Combine in 2009. And now it appears Austin is on track to become a first-round draft choice just like Harvin as well.
Recently, a friend that works for an NFL team approached Freeman to ask him for a scouting report on the speedy slot receiver from West Virginia.
"You're talking about a kid that works hard, that's attentive, that's humble, that wants to win, that wants to learn, that gets along well with his teammates," said Freeman. "That's what you have in Tavon Austin."
Even though the Combine is over, the process is not. Freeman will continue to work with his young apprentices through their pro day and the NFL Draft.
His final message to them was, "Hey, it's not over. We're just at the beginning. We're just starting, and we've got more work to do to get ready to go into camp."
Brian Carriveau is the author of "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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