After a senior year at Miami Columbus — where he had 59 catches for 939 yards and 11 touchdowns, leading the Explorers to the Class 8A state final — Maloney made no grabs last year as FIU coaches decided to redshirt him.
But rather than feel sorry for himself, Maloney put his hard hat on — in this case, an FIU helmet — and went to work.
He got stronger, putting 16 pounds of muscle on what is now a 5-11, 190-pound frame, and he made his college debut last week with six catches for 49 yards and one touchdown in a 41-14 loss to Maryland.
“What Austin did last year is a great example for any freshman who is not playing on Saturdays,” pass game coordinator Kort Shankweiler said. “He went down on the scout team and competed every day.
“That work ethic paid off for him this year.”
Saturday at Massachusetts, in a battle of 0-2 teams, FIU coaches are going to ask Maloney to do it again. FIU lost 24-14 last year at UMass, but the Panthers have added new weapons since then.
In fact, the Panthers’ top three wide receivers in reception yards so far this season are all freshmen — Stantley Thomas (3 catches, 91 yards), Maloney (6-49) and Tony Gaiter IV (4-39).
The freshmen are taking advantage of the fact that junior wide receiver Shug Oyegunle is out for another couple of weeks due to an ankle injury, and top 2015 target Thomas Owens is getting extra attention from defenders.
“Those guys are very smart,” FIU quarterback Alex McGough said of the three freshmen. “They know the playbook. That helps us a lot because we don’t have to dial anything down.”
In fact, Gaiter, who played his high school ball at Westminster Christian, also has a 27-yard run on an option pitch and leads all FIU wide receivers in total yards.
But while Thomas and Gaiter are true freshmen, straight out of high school, Maloney had to battle a bit harder.
FIU defensive tackle Leonard Washington is one of the guys who has noticed the work Maloney puts in every day.
Asked in the preseason to name the fastest guy on the team, Washington chose Maloney.
“If you came out here in the summer and watched him run, he’s first on gassers,” Washington said. “He’s first by a long shot on everything we do.”
Maloney, who had eight catches for 111 yards in the 2014 state final — a 30-23 loss to Apopka — had his biggest moment so far as a college player in the fourth quarter of last week’s loss to Maryland.
Even though FIU trailed 41-7, and even though McGough had been knocked out of the game due to a back bruise, Maloney kept working.
On the drive that culminated in his touchdown, Maloney first drew an interference penalty on a deep route to help get FIU in position.
Then, with 9:49 left and FIU backup quarterback Maurice Alexander facing a first-and-goal from the four, the Panthers called for a fade.
Maloney, who was split wide right in one-on-one coverage against Maryland sophomore cornerback RaVon Davis, reached over the top of his defender to grab the ball before tumbling backward over the pylon.
“Maurice looked at me before the play,” Maloney said. “He threw it up, and I caught it.”
Maloney said the redshirt year served him well.
“It was actually good,” Maloney said. “I got stronger (405 pounds on squats, 225 on bench). I learned the offense a lot more, and I matured.
“After not playing for a year, it felt really good to be out there. It felt right.”
UMass won only three games last year, including against FIU. UMass’ coach is Mark Whipple, who served as Miami’s offensive coordinator for the 2009 and 2010 seasons until he was fired along with head coach Randy Shannon, making way for Al Golden and his staff. Whipple is 55-46 in eight-plus years at UMass.
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