Austin Aikens has spent the offseason running, lifting, catching …but mostly running.
Routes. Nice, tight, crisp routes.
And the past few weeks, the Plant wide receiver’s practice has seemingly made him perfect.
He dominated at the USF Sling-N-Shoot, where Plant was second, then followed up that performance with one even better at the Heath Evans Foundation 7-on-7 Tournament last weekend in West Palm Beach, where the Panthers captured the championship.
Facing better competition, including a number of the state’s top recruits, Austin raised his game and rose above the competition.
Several recruiting analysts deemed Aikens one of the best players there. And Plant defensive backs coach Bo Puckett exclaimed, “AUSTIN AIKENS WAS A MAN AMONG MEN” on Twitter.
Yes, he used ALL CAPS!
“Oh, yes, I really think I (blew up),” Aikens said. “I saw all the hard work pay off, I was able to go out and do everything I wanted to do against the defenders and really show what I’m capable of. Nobody could stop me.”
If that sounds arrogant, it’s not. It’s the truth.
Aikens made a number of great catches, none more so than the one to beat Miami Northwestern.
“One-handed catch, back of the end zone,” Aikens said. “We were down two, it was third or fourth down, and we really needed it. I think it was (James) Few that threw it, and I remember jumping so high I was afraid I was going to bump into the goalpost.”
Aikens, who led the Panthers last season with 820 yards receiving on 35 catches, isn’t a 4.4 kid or a tall physical receiver or a speedy slot guy — he’s a little bit of all of those things.
His precise route running makes him faster than he appears to be, he has outstanding hands and his jumping ability makes him taller than most defensive backs.
“I feel like I’m a well-rounded player, a technician,” said the 6-foot-1, 185-pounder. “I worry about my technique and running nice sharp routes, I catch the ball with my hands and I use my speed to get open.”
Aikens thinks route running is an often overlooked art form. He sees receivers relying on their speed all the time, to which he says, “If they could learn to stop on a dime and switch their route, they’d put that speed to better use.”
He works with a personal receivers coach and is relentless when it comes to mastering his craft.
“I want to get open, that’s the most important thing,” he said.
This offseason, he has been open a lot, and when he’s not, he’s still making catches, a reason he has quickly become the go-to receiver for the trio of quarterbacks battling to be the starter in the fall. Aikens said he is mostly in synch with Few, but he and Aaron Banks have developed chemistry as well.
“Whenever he’s in doubt or in trouble, he knows I’ll be in the back of the end zone,” Aikens said. “Banks is starting to look for me there, too.”
Aikens has received nearly a dozen offers from colleges like Boston College, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Cincinnati. He is hoping to make official visits to all the aforementioned schools, as well as Western Kentucky.
He said he’s wide open and won’t make an early decision, but Missouri is his leader.
That could change as the offers trickle in, and if he keeps playing the way he did in June, it’s hard to imagine they won’t.
John C. Cotey can be reached at email@example.com