As Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner rose up draft boards during the 2022 pre-draft process, the swaggering cornerback out of the University of Cincinnati was often asked about his toughest college matchup.
Consistently, he gave the same name: Memphis receiver Calvin Austin III.
“I wasn’t used to guarding smaller guys,” Gardner told Chris Simms of Pro Football Talk. “But he gave me (a) reality check.”
Austin, a standout in the slot at Memphis, went head-to-head against Gardner in the American Athletic Conference. That included a game on Halloween in 2020 when Austin logged 121 receiving yards on seven receptions, several of which came against Gardner.
“We had some good battles in the American Conference,” Austin said Wednesday. “We actually trained at the same place pre-draft. It’s a lot of friendly talk, competition and stuff like that.”
Austin may have earned Gardner’s respect, but their rookie seasons couldn’t have unfolded more differently.
The Jets snatched up Gardner with the fourth pick in the 2022 draft, and he took little time introducing himself to the NFL, earning Defensive Rookie of the Year and first-team All-Pro honors.
Meanwhile, Austin’s rookie season was over before it even started. After flashing his playmaking potential during training camp in Latrobe, the Steelers’ fourth-round pick sustained a foot injury that ultimately required surgery and robbed him of the entire season.
“It was a very tough feeling,” Austin said. “I’m pretty sure all rookies want to come in and immediately make an impact for your team and in the league. So not being able to play was tough. But being able to sit back and learn and watch and take everything in definitely slows things down.
“Now, going into this season, I just have so much more confidence in myself and what I need to do and what I can do out there. I’m just ready to actually be able to show it.”
Now, after his unexpected redshirt season, Austin is looking to make an impact as things change in Pittsburgh’s receiving corps. Diontae Johnson and George Pickens should be the unquestioned starters as the two most established holdovers from last year.
But after that?
There are a lot of question marks, especially in the slot. In some instances, the answer could depend on the formation. Now that massive 6-foot-7, 265-pound tight end Darnell Washington is in the fold, it seems logical that the Steelers would use more two-tight end formations, which would allow them to detach tight end Pat Freiermuth from the line of scrimmage. Freiermuth was already growing into this role after the Chase Claypool trade opened a similar door last season.
But they’ll also need a reliable slot receiver in a traditional mold to work underneath routes and the middle of the field. Allen Robinson, who was acquired in a trade from the Rams, figures to be the leading candidate to snag a starting role. He brings a veteran’s presence and versatility to line up at any receiver position.
Gunner Olszewski bobbled his opportunity in the return game and consequently lost his job in the middle of the season to Steven Sims. With Sims now gone, perhaps Olszewski can work his way back into the coaching staff’s good graces.
Austin is the X-factor. If he can prove to be another mid-round gem like the Steelers have been so good at finding, the question marks about their receiving depth could be answered.
The shifty, 5-foot-8 receiver does possess a skill set that would make him a fit in the slot. After joining Memphis as a preferred walk-on, he went on to become one of the most productive players in program history. He finished his career with the Tigers ranked second in program history in receiving touchdowns (22), fourth in receiving yards (2,541) and fifth in receptions (156).
His combine numbers reveal some of what makes Austin a dynamic threat. His 4.32 40-yard dash was the fifth-fastest time at the 2022 combine and the third-best time among receivers. His change of direction was also on display in Indianapolis as he posted a 4.07 short shuttle that was the best at his position and the third best overall. Similarly, his 6.65 three-cone drill was fourth best overall and tops among receivers.
Asked what he envisions his role will be this season, Austin said he’s taking a wait-and-see approach.
“I feel like that kind of paves its way once you get into (training) camp,” Austin said. “Everything kind of finds its path. (I’m) just a guy that can come in, make some big plays for the team and just be there whenever I’m needed.”
Austin also believes the time away from the field may have been a blessing in disguise. Even though he wasn’t able to build chemistry with quarterback Kenny Pickett during the season or learn through game reps, he benefited from the different perspective on the game.
“When I first got here, I saw some exotic defenses,” Austin said. “I saw a whole bunch of coverages in the slot and everything that I wasn’t used to. So it would have my head kind of scrambling. But now I can get out there and I’m like, ‘OK, I know this route. I see what coverage they’re looking like they’re gonna run to. Now I can go to my Plan B, my Plan C.’”
If Austin can impress on special teams, that will also help his path to playing time. He brings experience fielding punts in college and said he’s conformable filling any role on special teams. As the Steelers showed last season with Olszewski and Sims, the return job and slot position sometimes go hand-in-hand.
“I’m open for whatever in the special teams world,” Austin said. “Even if that’s me being the gunner. Whether that’s punt return, kick return — I’m confident in both.”
If he can prove to be dynamic with the ball in his hands in the return game, perhaps the Steelers will continue to look for ways to get him the ball on offense and help him show why opposing defensive backs hold him in such high regard.
(Photo: Charles LeClaire / USA Today)