The changing of the guard: Austin Proehl is next in line at wide receiver

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Senior wide receiver Austin Proehl watches practice in Kenan Stadium on Aug. 21.

Austin Proehl is a lot of things. Right now, he’s a Gunter Brewer whisperer.

It’s a humid afternoon in Kenan Stadium, and Tuesday’s practice has just ended. Some players peel off pads and head toward the locker room. Others joke around and do their best Odell Beckham Jr. impressions with one-handed catches. The wide receivers, however, aren’t done yet.

Brewer, their position coach, is less than satisfied with their performance today. Out of the 16 receivers on UNC’s roster, half of them are in their first or second year with the program. They stand silently as he walks back and forth and stresses communication.

At one point, he asks someone to run a stick — a short and fairly simple route. When the receiver does, it's obvious Brewer doesn’t get what he asked for.

“Give me a stick!” he yells.

His words are loud and clear to everyone nearby. But when the unit huddles and breaks for the day, everyone seems calmer — Brewer included. It’s as if practice ended on a good note. As if someone actually did give Brewer a stick.

“He’s always unhappy about something,” Austin says with a smirk.

He pauses for a moment to address Cam Dillard, the team’s starting center who just snuck up behind Austin and grabbed him on the shoulder. Neither can contain his laughter. Austin composes himself and continues.

“You’ve just got to calm him down a little bit,” he says of Brewer. “So that’s my job. I just calm him down, give him a hug and make sure he’s OK.”

Very few players can get away with that on Brewer. But if anyone can, it’s Austin. The two go way back — all the way to Providence High School in Charlotte, where Brewer personally recruited the wide receiver to come to UNC. Austin, now a senior, explains how the jokes go both ways.

“I can take little jabs at him, because he takes little jabs at me sometimes,” Austin says. “We have a good relationship.”

That’s all part of the fun, though. And fun is something Austin has a lot of.

***

To Austin and his younger brother, Blake, Saturdays meant early wake-ups, cone drills and film sessions.

For some kids, that may not have been the ideal way to spend the weekend. But for two brothers obsessed with every detail of the wide receiver position, the situation was perfect. It helped that their coach lived in the same house as them.

Ricky Proehl spent 17 years in the NFL after a record-setting career at Wake Forest. The wide receiver made it to four Super Bowls in his career, winning in 2000 with the Rams and in 2007 with the Colts.

Clutch. Dependable. In the right place at the right time. That’s what Ricky was, and that’s what his sons wanted to be. So, they went to work.

“I would just break it down,” Ricky said. “We’d work on the top end of routes, how to get in and out of a cut, how to accelerate out of a cut, how to stay low, how to make sure you’re in good balance when you’re at the top so you don’t slip in wet conditions. All those little things that make a big difference.”

And what a difference it made. Austin runs every route — be it a fade, a post or an out — with precision and timing. Just ask the teammates that have to guard him at practice.

“He’s really crafty and very technically sound,” cornerback M.J. Stewart said. “He pushes me to be a better player … Every time we do one-on-one drills, Proehl’s the No. 1 person I want to go against.”

Austin’s game against Stanford in the Sun Bowl is a textbook example. The Tar Heels were facing a third and 10 early in the first quarter. Austin was split out to the left in his stance. Hike.

Accelerate off the ball. Close that cushion.

Stanford cornerback Alameen Murphy backtracked as Austin ran up the field. One step. Two steps. All the way to 10. Then, he planted his right foot.

Stay low. Stay balanced. Finish the top of the route.

The 45-degree cut created about five yards of separation from Murphy, who nearly did a split trying to change his direction and come back to the ball. Mitchell Trubisky delivered a dime, and Austin hauled it in for a 15-yard gain.

In North Carolina’s 25-23 loss, Austin finished with a team-high seven catches and 91 yards. Among them: a toe-dragging sideline catch and four more comeback routes, all run to perfection. On one, he launched his 5-foot-10, 185-pound frame in the air to make a grab over and behind his head.

“If you recognize his name, his daddy was a good one,” an announcer noted.

That’s a comparison that comes up a lot, but Austin doesn’t mind it. Ricky is his father, his coach and his mentor. Why wouldn’t he want to be associated with someone like that?

“I think it’s a blessing for people to say, ‘Hey, that’s Ricky Proehl’s son,’” he said. “I love having that title, and I’ll never turn that down.”

***

The mood on Wednesday is infectious.

Austin makes his way through four tall blue tackling dummies in a line, hesitating at each one before exploding past. He wears athletic tape on both wrists with the phrase “BP 11” on them, a tribute to his brother, who will miss his entire first season at ECU after an ACL tear in training camp.

Austin emerges from around the fourth dummy and catches a bullet pass. His teammates go through the same post-practice drill. There’s a certain energy as they slap the thick canvas material of the dummies and juke and spin around them. If Brewer asked someone to give him a stick right now, it would definitely happen.

As head coach Larry Fedora addresses the media, Austin runs over and holds an imaginary camera. He snaps pictures of his coach, twisting his head to get the perfect angle. The reporters notice before Fedora does. Finally, the two make eye contact.

Fedora rolls his eyes and shoos Austin away. So the receiver skips over to his next project — linebacker Andre Smith. Austin positions himself between the two cameras Smith is talking to and starts nodding his head and raising his eyebrows, acting like every word Smith says is a revelation. His teammate can barely keep a straight face.

Come Saturday, Austin will line up as the No. 1 receiver for the first time in his UNC career. He’s spent his entire life around professionals. He’s been mentored by NFL stars like Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Steve Smith. Now, it’s his turn to be that presence.

“I think (my teammates) look to me in situations, which is awesome,” he says. “That’s what I look forward to — being able to help these young guys out.”

He’s the leader of what he calls “an unidentified unit.” He’s been told he’s too small. He still doesn’t know who’s going to throw him the ball this weekend. It doesn’t matter.

To quote an old saying in the Proehl household: Austin is a lot of things, but scared ain’t one of them.

@chapelfowler

sports@dailytarheel.com

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