OXNARD, Calif. – Out-route after out-route, Tavon Austin kept running full speed.
Practice at the River Ridge Complex had ended 25 minutes ago. The sun began to fade. Only Austin and Terrance Williams – the Cowboys' veteran receiver returning from foot surgery – still had a ball in their hands.
"You've got to respect the game," Austin said afterward. "That's what I had to get myself to realize when I had my injury."
Leadership is a hot-button issue in this particular Cowboys training camp. With Jason Witten's retirement and Orlando Scandrick's spring release, only three position players on the current 90-man roster are 30 or older. "We've got a very young team" was one of team owner/general manager Jerry Jones' first public declarations at the camp-opening address on July 25.
Austin's no 30-something – he turned 27 in March – but only eight players on the roster have more time in the NFL. With a young and revamped receiver group, the sixth-year veteran newcomer is emerging as a new leader – vocally and demonstrably, as his post-practice reps indicate.
"He's been kind of the spark plug of the group," receivers coach Sanjay Lal said.
Lal, also new to the Cowboys, didn't know much about Austin when the Cowboys traded a sixth-round pick to the L.A. Rams for the 5-8, 180-pound wideout on draft weekend in late April. John Fassel, the Rams' special teams coordinator, told Lal he'd love Austin.
A week into camp, Lal sees why.
"He brings energy," Lal said. "He's that veteran guy that I don't know that I've really had that I can say, 'Get them to do this.' Even in the walkthrough he's working through his footwork. He's sinking his hips even in the walkthrough, which is how you build muscle memory. Don't waste these reps. He's in his real stance. So I can send him over to (rookie receiver Michael) Gallup and say, 'Look, here's how we're going to do it.'
"He's been great, and it's genuine, too. Guys see right through the fake stuff. His is genuine."
It's clear that Austin is embracing a fresh start. Drafted eighth overall by the Rams in 2013, he described last season in L.A. as "rock bottom" in a conference call with the Dallas-area media on draft weekend.
He dealt with a wrist injury that required offseason surgery and then hurt his hamstring early in camp. Though the Rams also used him in the backfield as a mismatch runner, his receiving production dipped to a career-low 13 catches for 47 yards.
"It's always going to be a chip on my shoulder because I'm small. I had the same thing coming out (of college)," Austin said. "But last year was a little hard for me, my injury and I didn't get a fair chance over there.
"But at the end of the day, God got me right now. I'm just happy right now. They (the Cowboys) are taking an opportunity on me and I've been getting the best of it."
Austin can 'sparkplug' the offense in a lot of ways. He was a returner in L.A. and has taken punt return reps in Oxnard. He also has 184 career carries (9 rushing touchdowns) as a runner, though the Cowboys have yet to line him up in the backfield.
Maybe the most unique option for offensive coordinator Scott Linehan is lining up Austin and fellow 5-8 wideout Cole Beasley opposite each other on the outside. Both can create problems anywhere on the field with their ability to release quickly off the line of scrimmage.
The Cowboys' plans for Austin might not take full shape until the Sept. 9 opener at Carolina. But so far, he's trying to make an impact on the team on the field and in the meeting room.
"To be honest, my whole I've never been a captain of a team, but people always listened," he said. "Just because of work ethic, how I work, and a lot of times I'm out there talking and having fun, and No. 2, just competing. That's just in me."