Tuesdays at an NFL facility are typically reserved for coaches: film review, game planning, meetings. Players take the day off, allowing their bodies to heal before they kick off a new week of practices the next morning.
But last year, rookie wide receiver Terrence Austin would visit Redskins Park every Tuesday and head to the practice fields with the team’s third-string quarterback, John Beck. “Windy, freezing days,” Beck said.
The two would squeeze in an extra practice, Beck determined to master the offense and Austin intent on working his way off the practice squad. A season later, Beck is still waiting to learn whether he’ll be the Redskins’ starting quarterback, but heading into the final preseason game Thursday against Tampa Bay, Austin has already done his best to secure a spot on the 53-man roster. In fact, he’s been perhaps the team’s biggest preseason surprise thus far.
“He doesn’t scream NFL talent, but he is,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “It’s because he’s quick, he’s detailed on everything and you can go to him in any situation. Quarterbacks love him. He showed last year what he was, but it takes those guys a little bit of time to figure out the NFL, and to get that swagger. But you can tell he’s got it now.”
Generously listed at 5 feet 11 and 175 pounds, Austin was a seventh-round pick out of UCLA a year ago who had hoped to earn a roster spot as a rookie. When the Redskins made their cuts, Austin had trouble processing the news that he’d begin his pro career on the practice squad.
“I struggled with trying to figure out, ‘Do I really belong in the league? Am I good enough?’ ” he said. “I thought I’d worked hard, but it was an internal struggle, all these things I’d never thought about before.
“I couldn’t understand what it was that prevented me from making it, especially when I thought that I was good enough.”
When he was invited to join the practice squad, Austin figured each day was another chance to impress upon coaches that he belonged. But first, he had to realize that he was raw and had a lot of room for growth. In retrospect, he says spending the first 11 weeks of the 2010 season on the practice squad was a blessing.
“Everybody wants to be on the 53. I wasn’t used to me not making it. I mean, I’ve been making it all my life. I've always been in an important role,” said the 23-year old Austin. “I had to understand that I needed a whole lot of development. I really did. I had to understand that in the NFL, you got to be more of a student of the game. You got to realize that your physical attributes aren’t going to get you by all the time.”
So, Austin showed up every Tuesday and ran routes, catching pass after pass from Beck. During practices Wednesday through Friday, he’d line up with the scout team, where his real education took place.
“You think about practice squad, you’re going against the ‘ones’ every single day for a whole season,” said wide receiver Anthony Armstrong, who has spent time on practice squads in Miami and Washington. “If you’re going against guys like [DeAngelo] Hall, Josh Wilson, Phillip Buchanon day in and day out, you have no choice but to get better. . . . The coaches see what you can do against that competition and they have more confidence to put you in the regular offense.”
That has been the case this August. Redskins coaches have given Austin a bigger role with each preseason game. He appeared in the team’s final five games last season, recording just three catches for 47 yards. But entering Thursday’s contest, he has a team-high 140 receiving yards on 10 catches. He scored a touchdown last week at Baltimore and threw a key block that led to another.
“He’s a lot more mature after learning defenses in the National Football League, and I think he’ll keep on getting better,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said. “The one thing you can’t teach a guy is to be fearless, especially at his size. Regardless if it’s special teams, returning punts or kickoffs, running routes or blocking, it doesn’t take long to see that he doesn’t have a lot of fear.”
Austin may have entered training camp low on the depth chart, but he’s made a compelling case for the 53-man roster. The tougher decision for coaches might be which wide receiver now gets left off: Niles Paul, a fifth-round pick? Speedy returner Brandon Banks? Talented veteran Donte Stallworth?
Thursday’s game will be players’ last chance to make their case. Banks returned to practice Monday and will try to remind coaches that he can be a game-changer returning punts and kickoffs. Young receivers such as Paul, Leonard Hankerson and Aldrick Robinson will likely see more playing time than they have in previous games.
While Austin hopes to spend as much time on the field as possible, coaches have seen plenty from him already and know what to expect.
“He’s been a student of the game, he’s a guy who’s working out all the time,” Mike Shanahan said. “So it really doesn’t surprise us that he’s taken his game to a different level.”