ORLANDO, Fla. — Marvin Austin is a talker.
He's just not in the mood to talk about the past.
In a 20-minute interview this week, the former North Carolina defensive tackle refused to discuss agent-funded trips to Miami, any improper gifts he took or his relationships with former UNC assistant coach John Blake or agent Gary Wichard.
The conversation was part dodgeball and part apology, but Austin did express genuine regret for his role in an NCAA investigation that tarnished a Tar Heels program that carried ACC championship hopes last summer.
"I messed up a great situation," Austin said. "It was my fault."
Austin was in Orlando, Fla., preparing to play in today's East-West Shrine Game (4 p.m. NFL Network), looking to win over pro scouts wondering what a 6-foot-2, 312-pound defensive lineman who hasn't played a down of football in more than a year can do.
Austin declined to discuss why he was so regretful.
The Tar Heels capped an 8-5 campaign with a wild Music City Bowl win over Tennessee, but it was a season of regrets. The NCAA's investigation of the Tar Heels football program started in the second week of July, before expanding to include academic misconduct. Entering August as a preseason top-25 team, UNC ended up losing 14 players for at least one game and seven players for the entire season. North Carolina suspended Austin for the first five games of the season before dismissing him from the program after it was determined that he had received improper benefits worth between $10,000 and $13,000. At the time of Austin's dismissal, his lawyer said the NCAA had questioned trips made to California, Miami and back home to Washington, D.C.
There were two trips to Miami last spring, Austin confirmed this week. UNC receiver Greg Little went on both, and defensive end Robert Quinn went on another, according to an NCAA report. (The NCAA ruled both Little and Quinn permanently ineligible.)
The only other thing that Austin would say about the Miami trips is that he never handed out receipts to Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, as one Alabama newspaper reported in August, citing an unnamed source.
That's as much as Austin would share on the topic. UNC dismissed Austin from the program on Oct. 11 and never went through official channels with the NCAA to get him on the field this season, so there is no report, like the ones for Little and Quinn.
Austin said he is willing to answer questions from the NFL, and those answers might get leaked to the media in the draft process, but he's not going to volunteer any information.
"Maybe that's the way it should be," Austin said. "I'm not comfortable talking about it. I'm trying to move on, and I think we're at the point where [everybody at UNC] is ready to move on."
Back to basics
This is probably not where he expected to be at this point in his football career.
Austin's return to the football field took place Tuesday morning in front of an audience of NFL personnel, on a soggy field with a crooked goal post in the shadow of the Florida Citrus Bowl. For the most part, the rosters for today's East-West Shrine Game are filled with middling college talent.
No one else on the field was ever on Mel Kiper Jr.'s "Big Board," and it's unlikely there's another player with first-round potential. One agent, after watching 20 minutes of drills Tuesday, dismissed the group as a bunch of "scrubs."
Early in Tuesday's practice, Austin's first since he was suspended on Sept. 1, he got pancaked by Ohio State guard Bryant Browning. Later in the same drill, Virginia Tech center Beau Warren got into Austin's pads and muddied up Austin's pants, prompting one NFC scout to remark, "There's only one player who's dirty."
But the first practice wasn't a total disaster. Austin showed the combination of quickness and strength that anchored the ACC's top defense in 2009.
"He looked real good, quick on his feet," said Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor, Austin's teammate on the East squad. "He was a little rusty, but he's getting back into shape. He's in good shape, but he needs to get in football mode."
Austin improved during Wednesday's practice. He swatted Missouri State guard David Arkin, who's 6 feet 5 and 300 pounds, and then sped by Illinois guard Randall Hunt on consecutive snaps.
And he was hard to ignore in the situation scrimmage between the offense and defense, according to East coach Dan Reeves.
"He's beating people at the line of scrimmage," said Reeves, a head coach in the NFL for 23 years. "He has been almost impossible to block one-on-one. He looks really good."
Something to prove
The questions about Austin between now and the draft on April 28 won't be about his physical talent. The prize of UNC coach Butch Davis' first recruiting class, he started 26 games in three seasons and finished his career with 106 tackles and nine sacks.
"Nobody has ever doubted the kid is a very talented, gifted physical athlete," said Mike Mayock, a draft analyst for the NFL Network. "It's the off-the-field issues. A lot of teams are going to look at him with doubt and make him prove himself."
Like former Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant in last year's draft, Austin will have to convince NFL decision-makers he's not going to be a problem off the field. Bryant missed the final 10 games of his college career for lying to the NCAA and dropped to No.24 overall after being projected as a top-10 pick.
By coincidence, Austin said, he signed with the same agency as Bryant: Maximum Sports Management. (Austin's agent, Roosevelt Barnes, said Maximum has no connection to the NCAA investigation and did not provide any of the illegal benefits to Austin.)
Austin bristled at the idea that he needs to rehabilitate his image.
"I made a mistake and paid the price for it," Austin said. "I just have to be who I am and go play and enjoy the game like I always have."
Barnes, a former NFL linebacker, said Austin doesn't have any character issues.
"Teams have been very receptive, especially after they've gotten a chance to sit down and talk with Marvin," Barnes said. "He hasn't had any negative response at all."
But Austin started the week on the wrong foot, declining to take the Wonderlic test, a 50-question aptitude test which gauges a prospect's ability to solve problems. He also skipped a few interviews.
"Any kind of information the NFL wants, he ought to be giving it to them," Mayock said. "It's a pain in the butt, and it takes up some of his time, but he put himself in this situation, and it's up to him to get out of it."
Barnes said the players were given the option to take the Wonderlic test in Orlando or at the combine at the end of February. Barnes said Austin will take the test then.
"I think sometimes the people like to sensationalize things," Barnes said.
Desperation lingers in the lobby of the Rosen Plaza in south Orlando. There are scouts, agents, coaches, financial advisors and at least one owner's son all locked in on the same search - for talent.
The new crop of talent breaks from team meetings after 5 p.m. and stops at the cafe tables, like a speed-dating circuit. The Patriots are at one table, catty-corner from the scout from the New York Giants on the couch.
Across the lobby are two financial advisers with flow charts and graphs. By the second yawn, you could tell the prospect from Kent State had tuned out diversified investments and was eyeing the buffet at the restaurant.
These players are completely freed from NCAA regulation to mingle and find the best fit for their future. A year earlier, the same swarm existed for the same players, but it was under the table.
Austin could have jumped after his junior season at UNC, when as a second-team All-ACC selection he received a second-round grade from the NFL's draft advisory board. But on Jan. 1 last year, his 21st birthday, Austin tweeted his decision to return for his senior season. The sea of agents and financial advisors that filled the lobby found Austin anyway, or he found them. He won't say.
Austin could have banked a four-year contract worth about $1 million a year and another $750,000 in signing bonus. So why didn't he just avoid the mess and go pro?
"We had a chance to be a BCS-caliber program," Austin said. "I wanted to play for the BCS championship, and I wanted to win the ACC. The group of guys that came in, that's what we set out to do."
Marvin Austin is a talker.
He's just not in the mood to talk about the past. No scorched-earth interview with HBO or ESPN has been planned.
"He just wants to stay below the radar," Barnes said.
Finally, in the third interview in two days, he's asked again about the Miami trips. He relents and shares one detail.
"I do not get the tenant rate," Austin said without a hint of humor or a smile. "I don't even drink."
Austin's tweet, from May 29 - "I live In club LIV so I get the tenant rate ... bottles comin like its a giveaway" - was intended as an homage to Rick Ross, an oversized hip-hop boss. Instead, the lyric on his Twitter account raised one more question.
For the record, Austin said he was at the airport, not the club at South Beach's famous Fountainebleau Hotel, when he posted the lyric to his account. Austin won't say if he was ever at Club LIV.
"I thought it was a really clever line," Austin said.
"It got me in so much ..." his voice tapers off as he searches for the word "... trouble."
The title of the Ross song is "Sweet Life." What Austin has learned the past few months, however, is that life in college sports can sometimes be anything but sweet.
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