Austin Walter is a man who wears many hats, both literally and figuratively.
It's a rare day indeed if you encounter him away from the football field without some kind of hat on his head, while on the field he has become one of Rice's most consistent offensive weapons, no matter where he lines up on any given play.
Big Plays Doom Owls
Sam Stewart rushed for a career-high 132 yards and scored three touchdowns, but Rice could not hold off the big play proficiency of Southern Miss as the Golden Eagles took a 44-28 win in Hattiesburg on Saturday night.
He's embraced a myriad of roles so easily, one might assume it's been his forte throughout his athletic career, but the opposite is actually the case.
"The interesting thing is that wasn't always the case," Walter said. "I remember in middle school my dad (Anthony Walter) used to say `you need to be versatile and play not only running back, but play receiver, etc.' I used to be so stubborn and all I wanted to do was play running back."
He validated his singular focus by rushing for 6,062 yards on just 613 carries in his career, combining with Aston who ran for 2,778 yards on his own at quarterback while passing for 6,100 yards.
After a redshirt year in 2014, Austin took his place among the Rice running backs, rushing for 107 yards in his debut against Wagner in 2015 and compiling over 1,800 all-purpose yards in his first two years, while Aston saw action as both a wide receiver and cornerback.
Little did each know that what had been the norm for most of their lives was about to change. With the switch to a new offensive scheme, the coaching staff decided they would switch positions, with Aston moving to running back and Austin being asked to leave the backfield for the first time and play wide receiver.
If Austin was hesitant about his own position change, he had now such qualms about his brother.
"What's special about Aston is that he is the natural athlete," Austin stated. "Whenever somebody asks me who's better between me and my brother, I'll always say Aston. He was able to play quarterback, he was able to play receiver, he was able to play defensive back and this year, he was able to play running back. I've only played running back before this year. It just worked out that he was better at running back and I was better at receiver."
They both saw considerable playing time in the first two games of the season, but that came to a crashing halt late in the UTEP game when Aston suffered an injury that knocked him out of action for the remainder of the year.
For the first time in their playing careers, one twin would play while the other would watch from the sidelines.
"It's a little strange (not having Aston on the field with him), but when we are on the road this year, I FaceTime him the night before the game and he's the first person I talk to after the game. He's ready to tell me `you should have done this on that play' or 'I'm really proud of you'. We're best friends and we are always trying make the other better."
Austin showcased his explosive speed first at receiver in 2017, finding a spot between Pitt defenders and taking a pass from Jackson Tyner and sprinting 70 yards for a score. But as injuries to Rice's running backs continued to mount, he was asked to return to the running back rotation as well.
The return to running back gave him a chance to see the wisdom in the advice his father had tried to instill at a younger age.
"Now I see what my dad meant about being so versatile," he stated. "I love lining up out wide and then coming back into the backfield. Whatever the offense can do to put the ball in my hands, I love it. The versatility is everything that I'm about. I want to impact the game from different aspects."
He also found that he had developed an appreciation for the life of a wide receiver.
"It makes me wonder why I ever wanted to be a running back in the first place. You're getting hit every play back there. We call it the trenches and it takes a grown man to be inside the trenches," he said.
In his dual role, he has both been participant and witness to the offensive potential he and his teammates felt was possible this year. In particular, he has seen wide receiver Aaron Cephus produce six receptions of better than 50 yards this season, which ties him for the national lead while his 27.8 yards per catch leads the country.
"That kid (Cephus) has a bright future," Walter said. "The only person who can really stop Cephus is Cephus. When you see the plays that he is making and see the plays that I have made this year and the plays that our young quarterbacks are starting to make, it shows why the coaches felt like this was going to be the year. What we are seeing now is when we do what the coaches say and do it correctly then we can get the job done."
Sadly, his father is not able to see his son's embracement of his advice to diversify his own game. Anthony Walter passed away in late July, just days before the Owls would embark on their earliest training camp, predicated by their opening the 2017 season against Stanford in Australia.
Austin would score Rice's lone touchdown on the day in Sydney, but he and his teammates were playing with the knowledge that Hurricane Harvey was unleashing its furry on the Houston area. The next game saw Aston lost for the season and the following weeks have seen the Owls drop seven straight. Through it all, Austin Walter has been a steadying presence in whatever role asked of him.
"From my dad passing away in July, to going to the other side of the world to start the season and not having the outcome we wanted and then having Hurricane Harvey hit while we were away and then having the worst season not only for Rice in recent history but also in my entire career...this is something I've never experienced," he stated.
"I'm a firm believer in my faith and I just feel like God is putting these obstacles in our path for a reason."