Bill Hass on the ACC: In Football and Off the Field, Clemson's Thomas Austin is a Winner
Nov. 20, 2008
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Thomas Austin just can’t help making an impact.
When he plays football, lining up at left guard for Clemson, the fourth-year junior is adept at putting defenders on the ground, as his 13 knockdown blocks against Duke last week attest.
He is the undisputed leader of the offensive line and highly respected by his teammates, on the field and in the locker room.
Away from football, Austin’s impact manifests in various ways. Such as being an Academic All-ACC selection last season. Or inviting up to 25 of his teammates over for dinner at his house. Or giving up his time on spring break to spend a week at an orphanage in Mexico, helping construct buildings and just being around young children.
The mission trip was with a group of about 25 called Reformed University Fellowship. Austin’s close friend Tyler Grisham, a Clemson wide receiver, was also in the group.
“In the morning we would help do construction work,” Austin said, “help laying bricks, moving dirt, anything to help them build new buildings. Then we’d have lunch and take a little siesta during the heat of the day.
“At night we’d do programs with the children. It’s such a rewarding experience; you see how blessed we are in the United States but we don’t realize it oftentimes. You see the joy of these little kids and you say ‘how can you be joyful? you don’t have anything.’
“It was a time to be with the kids and show them some love. It was a very good experience for us and it was amazing to see how God works through these kinds of experiences. It’s one of those things that will stick with you the rest of your life.”
How about the dinners? There are days when Austin and his wife, Margaret, don’t see each other from early morning until around 8 p.m. And the couple was only married on July 5. Still, he thought it was a good way to maintain relationships with his teammates, so on many Thursdays he invites them to the three-bedroom house about a mile off campus that the couple rents from her uncle.
“We have a close-knit group, especially the offensive linemen, and it allows us to have those guys over for meals and fellowship off the field,” said Austin, the team’s only married player. “It helps build that continuity. We’ll do fajitas – Margaret and I will do the meat and we’ll get guys to bring the pitas, salsa, chips, the side items. As much work as you put in all year, it’s fun to get together and not have to talk about football.”
Austin, a deeply religious man, is led by his faith. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that makes him a soft touch on the football field. That’s where the word “impact” comes into play again.
“He’s one of the nicest guys that we’ve got,” said Clemson offensive line coach Brad Scott, “but one of the meanest, toughest football players that we throw out there on the offensive side of the ball. Last week against Duke, he just got after them. I’m talking about finishing blocks, knockdowns, cut blocking.”
Clemson’s offensive line, beset by injuries all season, finally looks to be coming together. One of the stabilizing factors was moving Austin from center to guard three games ago. The continuity since then has helped the unit improve “drastically,” according to head coach Dabo Swinney.
“We were lacking at the guard position with the injuries that we’ve had,” Swinney said. “We needed a physical presence at guard, a little bit more athletic guy, and that’s what Thomas brought to the table. The guard position, for what we do, is very, very critical and it has been a good move for us.”
Virginia coach Al Groh, whose team faces the Tigers Saturday, said he relates to the struggles of Clemson’s offensive line because his club has gone through a similar experience. It’s not only the missed games that hurt, Groh said, but the missed practices where linemen learn verbal and non-verbal communication on blocking assignments.
Austin has caught the eye of the Cavaliers’ coaching staff on film.
“He’s done a real nice job,” Groh said, noting Austin’s selection as ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week for his effort against Boston College on Nov. 1. “I thought he was doing a pretty good job at center, but obviously this gives them their best overall lineup. He’s one of the players that we’re impressed with. He plays like a real veteran. You don’t see any inexperience in his play.”
Football has been a big part of Austin’s life since he was 7. At first he was a running back and linebacker, but a 7th-grade coach switched him to the offensive line.
“I was just devastated,” he recalled. “I couldn’t believe it. I liked running the ball and hitting people on defense. But I realized you get to (hit people) on every play on the offensive line, so it might not be such a bad thing. It didn’t take long to get over that. I played offense and defense until 10th grade and then offensive line (exclusively). I wouldn’t have changed that for anything in the world.”
After being recruited by Clemson out of Camden, S.C., High School, Austin spent a red-shirt season improving his body and beginning to learn the footwork and techniques essential to being a college lineman. He was the line’s top backup in his redshirt freshman season; then started 12 games as a sophomore, four at guard and eight at center.
Scott said that while Austin might not have been the most gifted lineman coming in, he had the intangibles that coaches look for, including toughness, intelligence and a willingness to work to improve. Technique turned out to be his strong suit.
“I think that’s what makes him the player that he is – he’s a great technician,” Scott said. “He understands angles, he understands leverage. He was a state high school wrestling champion. There’s so much carryover from that sport to football when you’re talking about balance, leverage, how to position your body. His technique probably allowed him to play a little better than his experience early, and now he’s gaining the experience along with the technique and is really playing well.”
Even before injuries struck the line, Austin was the most experienced player. The younger players ask him for tips and he’ll give them some coaching when Scott’s duties are elsewhere.
Continuity in the line enabled the Tigers to keep improving and culminate with their best effort to date against Duke.
“I think the key for us was we didn’t have many three-and-outs,” Austin said. “We kept their defense on the field. We had 51 plays in the first half and I think that wore their defense down and kept our defense fresh, and they were playing lights out for us. It was definitely a team effort and it was very rewarding, more of a complete game than we’ve played all year.”
Few teams have gone through the adversity that Clemson has faced this season, including an in-season change in head coaches from Tommy Bowden to Swinney. Austin said things were “surreal” for awhile, but the team has been able to move on.
In fact, at 5-5 overall (3-4 in the ACC’s Atlantic Division), the Tigers can still qualify for a bowl game if they win their final two games against Virginia and South Carolina. (They need seven wins to become eligible because they played two FCS teams.)
“If we finish this thing out the right way we can still win eight games, which is remarkable if you look at where we were several weeks ago,” Austin said. “That’s definitely something that’s talked about and everyone wants to go to a bowl game.”
Whatever happens this weekend and the rest of this season, Austin has another year to play. Ultimately, of course, he would like a chance to play in the NFL, but he’s not pinning his future on that.
“I would like to give it a shot if that opportunity presents itself,” he said. “I love the game of football and I don’t know anything other than that. As long as I’m able to play I’d love to do it and after that, move on and do something else.”
That “something else” might not have anything to do with his Political Science major, either.
“Coming into college I wanted to do law school, something in that area, so political science was something I was very interested in,” he said. “Since getting here to Clemson, I don’t think that’s where I’m being led. I don’t exactly know what’s going to happen after football. I really feel some kind of call to ministry or some kind of mission work, maybe seminary after college, I’m not exactly sure.”
Scott understands that Austin’s faith gives him the foundation in his life and is the source of his confidence on and off the football field. He also believes that, with some improvement in pass protection, Austin could play in the NFL for a long time.
“The fact that he plays center and guard and is so smart and will play with a little bit of pain, he brings everything to the table that they’re looking for,” Scott said. “They might find one who’s a little bigger or might run a little faster, but when you put the whole package together, Thomas Austin is a winner.”
One of the things a winner does, on and off the field, is make an impact. And that’s certainly what Thomas Austin does.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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