Zach Austin can’t pin down precisely when he was told he’d been approved to return for a sixth year of college football.
The Texas Tech inside receiver, having lost the past two seasons to knee injuries, spent more time this off-season wondering if he should return in the first place and if the Red Raiders would benefit by his presence.
If he was going to come back, he wanted to be fully healthy and not burden his teammates in any way, shape or form.
Austin talked it out with his family, Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury and his long-time best friend, Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield.
“I had a talk with coach Kingsbury about stuff like that,” Austin said this month. “I basically asked him, ‘Just be a hundred percent honest with me. If you really want me, I’m not going to say no. I’m going to come back a hundred percent and I’ll try.’
“And he said, ‘Yeah, we really love having you around,’ and stuff, and that kind of pushed me in that direction, too. So it definitely helped.”
The Red Raiders can certainly use Austin, considering they lost five receivers from last year’s two-deep: Cameron Batson, Dylan Cantrell and Derrick Willies were seniors, Keke Coutee left early for the NFL draft and Quan Shorts was dismissed from the team.
So one aspect of the receiver-corps reconstruction involves Ja’Deion High and Austin, both sixth-year seniors with modest career numbers, both inside receivers who have been team players while dealing with injuries that cost them full seasons. Even if High and Austin don’t put up big numbers, Kingsbury has said repeatedly this off-season he values what they can bring to a receiver room full of young candidates.
“I try to rub off on them as much as I can,” Austin said. “For the most part, it’s just intelligence and knowledge of the offense and what’s going to happen during a game and how the defense is going to react and what kind of coverages you’re going to be looking for just small things like that, because those guys are already talented, probably more talented than I am.”
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Austin was a young Red Raiders receiver himself once. His walk-on story was starting to pay off in October 2015, when he had eight-catch games against Baylor and Kansas, part of the career-high 22 catches for 238 yards he made that season as a sophomore. Even that year, he played with a cast on a broken left hand. In the 2016 preseason, he was rotating with the starters, practicing as the fifth receiver in five-receiver sets, when he suffered a knee injury that required micro-fracture surgery.
Then in the summer of 2017, working out on his own in Jones Stadium, Austin planted wrong and suffered a torn ACL.
He’d been down this road before.
Way back in 2011, as a junior at Austin Lake Travis and with Mayfield as his quarterback, Austin caught 72 passes for 1,340 yards and 16 touchdowns on the Cavaliers’ fifth consecutive state championship team. He suffered his first major knee injury early in his senior season.
“The first one was the worst one,” he said. “These last two weren’t terrible. They were bad enough to take me out.”
Mayfield, who started his college career just like Austin as a Tech walk-on in 2013, made a bitter break with the Red Raiders after one season and transferred to Oklahoma. The quarterback was one of the most high-profile players in college football in recent years, won the Heisman and was the first overall pick in the NFL draft.
When Austin was deciding whether to try for another comeback, he chatted with Mayfield, the two having known each other since Pop Warner football days.
“I talk to him all the time,” Austin said. “He’s still probably my best friend. Me and him talk a lot. I try to leave him alone a little bit, just because he’s in the midst of camp himself and he’s still learning the playbook and it’s a lot different.
“But I did talk to him briefly, and he just told me if it was him, he would do it, because he thought it was the right way to go out if I were to do another year at least to finish.”
Austin acknowledges there was a time when the bad luck wore on him. But lately, he’s made peace with it all.
“I was lucky enough for them to even give me an opportunity to come here,” he said. “Not many people can say that. A lot of people had to go through the ringer to get on a team in the first place, and I was blessed to even get on a team, especially this team and with this staff and coach Kingsbury.”
Austin already has a bachelor’s degree and is pursuing a master’s in personal finance. Asked how it will feel to come down the tunnel of Jones AT&T Stadium again on game night, Austin grinned and rapped his knuckles on the table. Knock on wood. He hasn’t made it that far yet.
But he hopes the comeback will be worth it.
“Maybe if I can make it through the season, maybe it’s a story to remember,” he said, “a story to tell one day.”