Heels' Austin elevates game

Top recruit now a top defender

Staff WriterDecember 24, 2009 

  • Pittsburgh vs. North Carolina

    When: 4:30 p.m. Saturday

    Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte

    TV: ESPN

    Radio: WCHL-1360, WRDU-106.1

By his own admission, Marvin Austin is insufferable on the football field.

North Carolina's massive defensive tackle uses a seven-letter expletive to describe the in-game persona he adopts as a trash-talking motor-mouth.

"I'm an [expletive] out there," Austin said.

Imagine how the opposition feels. Pittsburgh's offensive line will be the next group to endure the Marvin Austin Experience in Saturday's Meineke Bowl in Charlotte.

Austin arrived in Chapel Hill from Washington, D.C., in 2007 as one of the highest-rated recruits in the country, and the space-eating, 305-pound junior's performance caught up to that reputation this fall. His improved play, which frequently demanded the attention of two blockers, is one reason the Tar Heels led the ACC in rush defense and ranked No. 9 nationally in that category, allowing 92.8 yards per game.

How Austin and the Tar Heels' defense handle Pitt's running game, fueled by freshman tailback Dion Lewis and his Big East-best 136.7 yards per game, will go a long way toward determining Saturday's outcome.

Loquacious Austin feels confident he's up to the challenge and is not afraid to talk about it. To Austin, "if you ain't talking, you ain't trying." Even sometimes to the chagrin of his own teammates, Austin's mouth rarely takes a break.

"I don't think Marvin ever stops talking," said UNC defensive end Robert Quinn, who spends the entire game within earshot of Austin. "I hear him hootin' and hollerin,' but I try not to pay attention. He says some of the most random and craziest things you'll ever hear."

Austin often tailors his trash talk to each opponent. In the Tar Heels' 31-17 win over East Carolina on Sept. 19, he taunted Pirates players by telling them they weren't good enough to play at UNC. During the Tar Heels' 28-27 loss at N.C. State on Nov. 28, he told Wolfpack quarterback Russell Wilson, who finished with four touchdown passes, that he should stick to baseball.

And if nothing more specific comes to Austin's mind, he will boast, "You can't block me," or ask an opponent, "How did you get a scholarship?"

As difficult as he can be to ignore, Austin said he's proud of the improvements he has made on the field this season.

The highest-rated recruit signed by coach Butch Davis at UNC, and arguably the most important, Austin has been in the spotlight since he chose to play for the Heels.

Scout.com ranked him the eighth-best prospect in the country as well as the top defensive player in the class of 2007. At a school where blue-chip basketball recruits regularly dominate from their first day on campus, the expectations were for Austin to be a program-changing player in his first season.

Immediate success is rare in college football, however. Austin started three games as a freshman, and he cut his teeth next to Kentwan Balmer, a first-round NFL pick, but Davis said the position of defensive tackle doesn't lend itself to freshmen dominating - or even making a regular impact.

"Other than quarterback, it's the biggest learning curve for incoming high school kids," Davis said. "You're getting hit in the mouth, every single play."

Progress was less than conspicuous in Austin's sophomore season, and for a defensive lineman wearing a conspicuous No. 9 jersey and long, braided hair flowing out of his helmet, there was no missing Austin.

He did his job, starting 11 games while playing through back pain, but his intensity wasn't consistent. He could dominate one series and disappear the next.

Austin started to get a reputation of being "overrated," and he wanted to change that in 2009. This season as a junior, his numbers are up: a career-best 40 tackles, including six for a loss and a career-best four sacks.

"I think I played a lot better than I did last year," Austin said. "The game has slowed down for me, and I've played lot more physical this year."

The emergence of Quinn, who ranked second in the ACC with 11 sacks, and the depth of the defensive line, made Austin's job easier, but he also learned from his own mistakes.

He pursued more plays down field and learned how to back off the line on quick passing routes, which resulted in three pass breakups. Like the best defensive linemen Davis coached at Miami, former first-round NFL picks Russell Maryland, Cortez Kennedy and Jerome Brown, Austin is learning how to consistently dominate.

"Every year, they learned how to dominate the entire game, the entire season," Davis said. "And [Austin] did, he made some strides this season."

Going into college, Austin planned on staying three years and then jumping to the NFL. Now that he's draft eligible, he said he's not sure what he'll do in 2010. He has been projected by Internet draft sites as a late first-round or second-round pick in this spring's draft.

Austin said he will make a decision on his future after the bowl. Underclassmen have until Jan. 15 to make a decision.

"I have no idea what I'm going to do," Austin said. "I really don't."

In the interim, Austin is looking forward to celebrating his 21st birthday on New Year's Day, back in Washington. He also has developed an affinity for the video game called "Call of Duty," his Twitter account (LIFEofMA) and playing the drums.

"I'm a pretty eclectic person," Austin said. "I like different stuff. I don't like to be cliche."

There's little chance of anyone accusing Austin of being anything less than one of a kind.

jp.giglio@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8938

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