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Steelers WR Calvin Austin is making up for lost time after missing his rookie season to injury

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Calvin Austin III scores a touchdown.
Jason Behnken
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Calvin Austin III scores a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half of a preseason NFL football game, Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, in Tampa, Fla.

The ball settled into Calvin Austin's hands with nothing but green grass in front of him. As he raced down the sideline toward the end zone, all of the doubts, all of the pain, all of the worry vanished.

His feet are still fast. The speed that made the Steelers take him in the fourth round of the 2022 draft is still there. And the future once again is bright.

When Austin crossed the goal line for the first time at the end of a pretty 67-yard catch-and-run against Tampa Bay last week, he exhaled.

Technically, it was 666 days between his 69-yard sprint on a reverse in Memphis' win over Navy on Oct. 14, 2021, and his cathartic race to the end zone in Pittsburgh's preseason-opening win over the Buccaneers on Aug. 11.

To Austin, however, it felt like “forever.” Maybe because in a way it was, at least in a football sense.

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Austin impressed almost immediately during his first training camp a year ago before sustaining a Lisfranc injury in his left foot, ending his rookie season before it really began. He underwent surgery last fall, though he points out he didn't miss a meeting — not with the offense, not with the special teams, not with the wide receivers — during the lengthy rehab process.

“I wasn't going to be left out,” said Austin, who will get another chance to show how far he's come on Saturday night when Pittsburgh hosts Buffalo. “It's not about when you get on the train, it's about everyone being on the same page and stuff. I wasn't going to be left behind.”

The 24-year-old certainly looked up to speed during his professional debut. He ran twice for 23 yards and caught two passes for 73 yards and the touchdown his father — Calvin Austin II — promised would come.

The two were talking before the game started, with the elder Austin telling his son to hold onto the ball after he scored.

“I just said, ‘Yes, sir’ and believed him,'" Calvin Austin III said with a laugh.

Austin obeyed his father too, only giving up the ball in the giddy aftermath when he spotted his dad in the stands, a handoff a lifetime in the making.

As blissful as the moment was, it was just a moment. If anything, it allowed Austin to formally put the injury in the rearview mirror. The first major surgery of his life left him worried — at least initially — that he might not be the same player whenever he came back.

At 5-foot-9 and 162-pounds, Austin knows his quickness in tight spaces is a vital part of his skill set. His confidence in that quickness is maybe just as important. The early days of his rehab were anxiety-inducing. Then he found himself getting comfortable running in the pool. By the time he was running on grass, any concerns evaporated.

“I (knew) I was going to be at full speed," he said.

The Steelers are counting on it. Austin's versatility gives him a chance to carve out a clearly defined niche in a wide receiver group that includes former Pro Bowler Diontae Johnson, physical marvel George Pickens and veteran Allen Robinson.

While Austin profiles as a traditional NFL slot receiver, he's just as comfortable lining up on the outside and racing by defensive backs with his straight-line speed. His touchdown against Tampa Bay started with him being split wide to the left and offered proof the blazing 4.32 40-yard dash time he posted during the draft process wasn't a fluke.

“I’m just constantly learning whatever (they teach), he said. “Outside (or) inside, I'm just continuing to grow and get comfortable.”

The weird thing is, as cool as the touchdown was, it was just as important for Austin to get tackled. He was worried the long layoff between games would make him forget what it's like to get hit by someone who isn't on your team. When he was dropped after a 6-yard pass in the fourth quarter last week, he exhaled.

“I feel like we can check that box off,” he said. “And at least right now just being in a game was just important for me to have this Steelers uniform and go out and compete. So just doing that was enough.”

Saturday night's lone home exhibition game could offer a hint at how far the Steelers believe Austin has come. The starters figure to get their most extensive playing time before the season-opener against San Francisco on Sept. 10. Maybe there's a chance Austin's No. 19 could be out there early in certain packages. Maybe not.

Austin insists he's not keeping track. He's healthy. He's had a productive camp. He's eager to start talking about the future instead of reliving the recent past.

“This is just the beginning,” Austin said. “That’s behind us now. We got to move on.”