During his first three seasons with the Rams, Tavon Austin proved a dynamic punt returner. The 5-foot-8 speedster, the eighth pick in the 2013 draft, scored three touchdowns on returns.
But after Austin struggled to break free in 2016, his problems mounted this season. He has muffed multiple kicks, including two in last week’s loss to the Seattle Seahawks, one of which went for a turnover.
On Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, rookie Cooper Kupp or second-year receiver Pharoh Cooper will return punts.
“We’re going to give Tavon a break from that,” coach Sean McVay said this week.
Austin, who is earning nearly $15 million this season, sat out offseason workouts and minicamps while recovering from wrist surgery. He was sidelined for nearly all of training camp because of a hamstring injury.
He looked spectacular on a 27-yard run for the Rams’ only touchdown against the Seahawks, but acknowledged he was struggling mentally on punts.
“I’m a little scarred up right now,” he said.
McVay agreed. “I think that you can just get in your head a little bit,” he said. “You know the wrist thing is probably part of it. But what you appreciate about Tavon (is) he’s not going to make any excuses about it.
“He’s got to field the punts better than that more consistently in terms of being able to track it. He’s going to continue to work on that in practice.”
Austin’s most positive impact this season has come as a rushing threat. In the first four weeks, the possibility that he might get the ball on jet sweeps helped create running room for Todd Gurley, who was named the NFC offensive player of the month for September and the NFC offensive player of the week after a victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
“I’m just glad coach gave me the opportunity to make a play and I’m glad I made it,” Austin said.
Austin has rushed for 108 yards in 20 carries. He has five receptions for 19 yards.
“You look at what his does on the touchdown run, when the ball’s in his hands we’ve got to find ways to use him,” McVay said. “He’s a very good football player, great play maker. He’ll continue to be that.”
Jaguars on the rise
Before the season, with Blake Bortles’ future as the Jaguars’ quarterback apparently in doubt, the Rams’ trip to Jacksonville looked as if it might be one of the more winnable games.
Not anymore. The Jaguars are in first place in the AFC South after defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers, 30-9, on the road.
Bortles is not exactly lighting it up. He is completing only 55% of his passes, seven for touchdowns, with four interceptions. Against the Steelers, Bortles completed only eight of 14 passes for 85 yards.
But rookie running back Leonard Fournette, the fourth pick in the draft, has rushed for 466 yards and five touchdowns for an offense that leads the NFL in rushing (165.2 ypg). Fournette ran for 181 yards and two touchdowns in 28 carries against the Steelers.
And former UCLA star Myles Jack is part of a defense that is giving up only 16.6 points a game, tied for second fewest in the league. The Jaguars, featuring cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, rank third in passing defense, giving up 177.8 yards per game. They are second to last in rushing defense, though, surrendering 146.4 yards.
The Rams were off Tuesday. They resume practice Wednesday.
Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein