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Austin learning as a 'red-shirt' with Pats

Posted: December 22, 2010 2:31 p.m.
Updated: December 24, 2010 5:00 a.m.

Times are tough for recent college graduates and their quests to find meaningful employment in their chosen field.

It is no different for Camden native Thomas Austin, a 2008 graduate of Clemson University in political science in the classroom and an All-American and All-ACC selection on the football field in his four seasons with the Tigers.

Undrafted by any NFL teams last spring, Austin signed a free agent contract with the Minnesota Vikings in late April. He attended the team’s OTAs (Organized Team Activities) in the spring, was invited to pre-season camp in August before being given his release Sept. 4. One day later, the 2005 Camden High graduated was signed to the organization’s practice squad, meaning he had a source of income. The following day, the offensive guard was waived as the Vikings brought back an offensive tackle they had cut on the final day when rosters were reduced to 53 players.

Out of a job and without a place to live, Austin and his wife Margaret came back to the Palmetto State in order to have a roof over their heads.

“I did what every other person does when they get laid off; they go and live with their in-laws. That was interesting,” he said of setting up a temporary home base in Margaret’s home town of York.

Always a hard worker, Austin did not sit around the house and watch television all day. Instead, he kept his dream of playing in the NFL alive and with the help of his agent, he did not stay unemployed for long. On Sept. 29, Austin’s agent informed him that the New England Patriots wanted to sign him to their practice squad. Quickly, the Austins moved from the Charlotte suburbs to that of Boston.

In the days between his release from Minnesota to his present destination in Foxboro, Mass., Austin kept himself both in shape and busy in trying to secure employment.

“Almost immediately, when I got back, (his agent) said, ‘we’re going to work out and train.’ My agent said, ‘You guys are going to get a call, soon. You just need to hold tight and work out,’” said the 24-year-old.

“The next week, I got a call from the Patriots and I came up here and worked out for them. It went well and they said they were interested in me, but they weren’t looking to add anybody to the roster at that time. The week after that, I flew to Seattle for a workout. Then, I got back and went to Atlanta to work out, where I trained in the off-season. Then, I got a call from the Jets, who wanted to work me out. Then, I got a call from the Patriots who wanted to bring me onto their practice squad.

“Every week, teams are working players out and compile a list of players who they might want to add to their rosters at the end of the season or, hire if there is an injury.”

Being a member of any NFL franchise’s practice squad is a job which pays players a minimum of $5,200 per week with some organizations paying more, if they wish. For a player like Austin, it also gives him a chance to showcase his skills to the Patriots’ staff while also allowing another team to sign him. By doing the latter, the player must be moved onto the signing team’s active roster.

A practice squad player, such as Austin, takes part in the entire Patriots’ weekly activities including taking part in practices, watching films, being part of team meetings, receiving treatment from the team trainers and other responsibilities which go along with being part of the team. Earlier this month, he and several teammates traveled to a school to meet and talk with young students in Rhode Island.

What Austin cannot do as a Patriot is play in games or travel with the team to away contests. That means each Sunday or Monday night home game, Thomas and Margaret take their seats inside Gillette Stadium, watch the game and then return to their home in North Attleboro, Mass.

While he would like nothing better than to be on the field for games, Austin said he understands his role with the team and is more than ready to bide his time until that day comes.

“It kind of has the sense of being a red-shirt year in college. But at the same time, if there is an injury up front, it definitely affects you,” said Austin, who was red-shirted at Clemson as a freshman in 2005. “For the most part, not only is it my job to give our defense a good look, but it’s also to prepare myself if something like (an injury) were to happen. You have to be ready to go if the opportunity presents itself.”

Austin is quick to admit that he is not ready to step onto the field for a regular season game, at this point in his career. He started out taking baby steps in that direction. He is getting closer to achieving his ultimate goal with each passing practice. At the same time, however, the 2009 Clemson co-captain and devoted member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes knows a little something about patience.

He does not play the depth chart, “when will I get my chance” game at this point in his career. At the same time, he has the same feelings now as he did in his first fall at Clemson under then-head coach Tommy Bowden.

“This is part of the learning process,” he said of his current situation. “What I’m trying to do is to prepare myself for (playing in games.)

“But it is a little frustrating because the fun part of football is getting out there on that field and playing. We don’t get to do that, so it’s frustrating at times. But at the same time, I’m very glad to be with a good team and a good organization where I can develop as a player and, hopefully, get that opportunity (to play.)”

A versatile player at Clemson, Austin played both center and guard along Clemson’s offensive line after having been used at all three offensive line positions while playing for Jimmy Neal at Camden High from 2001 through 2004. As a professional, Austin has played, mainly, at both guard spots while getting the occasional looks at center in one-on-one drills. His hope is that, if he gets signed by the Patriots or another team at season’s end, he will be able to showcase his skills at both positions during the off-season workouts.

Since he is a rookie, the Patriots did not want to throw a lot of things at Austin, instead, allowing him to get comfortable where they need him and making sure he gives the New England defense the best look possible for the upcoming opponent’s offensive scheme.

As opposed to the college game, in which there are many different offensive schemes, the best thing about the NFL offenses, Austin said, is that they all have a similar blueprint.

“Pretty much, every team in the NFL has the same playbook; it’s just a matter of how they run it and the terminology which they use,” Austin said of learning a new team’s offensive scheme each week. “It’s an opportunity to be able to work your technique and learn your assignments, as well. There’s a lot of benefit to this.

“The nice thing about it is that our coaches do a good job of translating what other team’s run into our terminology. A lot of it is the same … five-man protection, five protection, and zone protection.”

One thing which Austin learned quickly, in Minnesota and continuing in New England, that the players he is playing alongside and lines up against are the best in the business. Also, as a practice squad player, he is evaluated each day by the coaching staff.

“In this profession, you get graded every day,” he said. “The evaluation process is always going on and it’s ‘How easy can he learn? Is he paying attention in meetings? Is he giving our guys a good look? Is he coming in and getting extra workouts?’ It’s all that kind of stuff.”

And while not playing in games, Austin said that just by going up against players of this caliber, he can see the difference between the college and pro game.

“It’s basically an adjustment from the speed of the game standpoint,” he said. “The biggest difference for me is that the margin of error is so small. Guys at this level just don’t make many mistakes and when they do, someone is going to capitalize on it.

“Everyone is big, strong and fast. It’s not like in college where you might be able to out-muscle or out-athlete a guy. That why, here, it’s such a game of technique and knowing what your responsibility is. The preparation which goes into every game is something which I’ve never experienced before. Here, it’s a business and it’s a full-time job.”

Vikes and Pats

In less than one full NFL season, Thomas Austin has lined up with some of the top players in the game, not to mention two of the top quarterbacks in NFL history. While with the Vikings, he was a teammate of Brett Favre. With the Patriots, he goes to work each day with Tom Brady.

In the case of Favre, Austin said the 41-year-old signal caller arrived at camp late and there was no time for the pair to get to know each other, besides being in the same film room for the three weeks they were in camp.

Brady, however, has been a different story. The three-time Super Bowl champion signal-caller whom Austin has gotten is different than some people may have perceived.

“I see Tom every day; he’s a nice guy,” Austin said when asked about one of the favorites to win the NFL MVP for 2010. “One day, we were doing a walk-through and I’d been here for a couple weeks and I guess he realized that he didn’t know my name. The next day, he made it a point to come talk to me, ask me how I was doing and asked me about my wife and those kinds of things. He’s a very personable, very nice guy and, obviously, an outstanding player. He’s just a down-to-earth kind of a guy.”

That is the kind of person Austin has learned that most NFL players are in real life. He admitted that he was star-struck when he first arrived in Minnesota and was in the same locker room as guys like Favre, Sidney Rice and Adrian Peterson. It has continued over to New England with players like Brady, Wes Welker and others.

“I think this experience has taught me that Tom Brady is just like every other person who plays in the NFL. It’s been good for me to learn that these are just normal guys, playing the game they love and that they have had success at in playing the game at its highest level,” he said.

While both franchises have star power, in New England, arguably, the biggest star is head coach Bill Belichick. Playing under the Patriots’ boss is far different for Austin than it was when he was in the Vikings camp run by then-head coach Brad Childress. In Belichick, Austin said, what you see is what the players get each day.

“Coach Childress was a little more laid back and here, Coach Belichick runs a tight ship. There’s no doubt that he is control and he’s not going to bulled around by any of these big-named guys. It’s his way or the highway,” Austin said of Belichick.

“I think that he’s shown that he’ll let go of guys when he wants to. From that aspect, in having talked with guys who have played in different places, I think coach Belichick runs a tight ship and sets the tone for the entire organization.”

One thing about being a member of the Patriots’ organization is that an undrafted free agent such as Austin will get just as good and long a look as some highly touted player. In Foxboro, he said, it’s all about what you do each day, not what you did yesterday or in college.

“I learned in Minnesota that they (coaches) know what’s going on, whether you think they do or not. The advantage with that is that if you work hard you, hopefully, make some ground up on the other players,” he said.

“It’s been really cool here to see how many blue-collar, hard-working, down to earth kind of guys there are here. It’s a close-knit group of players. I’ve never felt looked down upon by anyone because I’m on the practice team and they might be an All-Pro. It’s been kind of cool to see that. That starts with the coaching staff. (The Patriots) go after guys who a lot of people might now have gone after like Wes Welker and even Tom Brady. There are guys who were late-round picks or who were undrafted who may not have had the size or the speed, but they have invested in them and they have become outstanding players here.

“It doesn’t what round you were drafted in or where you played in college, it’s a matter of what you are doing on the field and your production level.”

A player whom his coaches have always praised for his work ethic, Austin is hoping the Patriots’ or, any other NFL team for that matter, will see how much he wants to play in this league and give him the chance. Until then, he will continue to work for that shot to achieve his goal of getting on the playing field and “making an impact on whatever team we’re on.”

Until then, Thomas Austin will continue doing what he has been doing since he was a pee wee league player and chasing down a dream. While not having had the chance to play in a regular season game as of yet, he knows the opportunity may be one game away. That, he said, is the way players in his position have to look at their roles.

“There are a lot of guys who get laid off at different points in the season,” Austin said. “When that happens, you just have to continue to work out, train and be ready when you get the call.”

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