LARAMIE — Seth Replogle recalls a game in 2014 when Austin Conway threw for 200 yards. Maybe 250.
“I don’t even remember,” said Replogle, then the head coach at Overland High School in Aurora, Colorado. “It wasn’t anything crazy. He had like 50 yards rushing. But he gave the ball when he was supposed to in the zone read, and he gave the ball to the right receivers.
“He really played the game as a quarterback, and he came off and — I’ve seen the kid go off for 400, 500 yards in a game — and he comes off and says, ‘That was the best game I’ve ever played.’”
At the time, Conway was a high school quarterback learning to play the position with his arm first. In his earlier years at Overland, he had been a quarterback who relied on his athleticism. Similarly, at Wyoming, Conway has grown from a collegiate receiver who got by on speed and agility into one who is comfortable running routes and catching passes.
In between, he was a college basketball player hoping to take control of his athletic career from the top of the key.
One thing has never changed. Regardless of its shape, Conway wants the ball in his hands.
Conway is fast, but he’s had to earn it.
“When he was young, man, he was a slow kid,” said Korey Askew, a former Northern Colorado defensive back and Conway’s older brother. “He was a slow individual. So he’s definitely worked on it. A lot of that stuff comes from natural ability, but it’s what you do with the natural ability. He’s worked on it.”
Conway’s speed developed and was what initially led to success for him as a high school quarterback.
“His (sophomore) year, it was basically just let him go,” Replogle said. “... He’d make a mistake and he’d end up scoring a touchdown on it. He’s just a freak athlete.”
As a junior, Overland began to design more and more plays for Conway. He was running a spread offense out of the shotgun, utilizing read option plays and stretching the field vertically with the passing game.
“He ran the ball extremely well and was starting to be an OK quarterback,” Replogle said.
By his senior year, Conway passed for nearly twice as many yards as he ran.
“He’d get it to the guy that needed to get it,” Replogle said, “and we’d be very successful.”
Recruiting interest was heavy for the 5-foot-10 Conway. Wyoming offensive coordinator Brent Vigen said Conway was one of the first players Craig Bohl’s staff studied when it arrived in Laramie.
“And we said, ‘Boy, we don’t have a chance at that kid,’” Vigen said.
Conway was receiving scholarship offers from Power Five schools such as Nebraska and Colorado.
“These are Pac-12, Division I schools coming in,” Replogle said, “and they’re saying, ‘Well, we think he’s a corner. We think he might be a safety. We think he’s a slot receiver.’
“And some people said, ‘Yeah, we’ll let you play quarterback. If you earn the job, we’ll keep you there, and if you don’t, we’ll move you to slot receiver.’ He kind of saw through (that). The recruiting class is crazy, and he kind of felt like some of the coaches were lying to him.”
And being a quarterback mattered to Conway.
“The attention’s on you, but I don’t think he did it for the attention,” Askew said. “I think that he likes having the ball in his hand. I think that he feels like, ‘Hey, I can will myself or anybody else to win if I have the ball in my hand.’ There’s nothing wrong with thinking that or believing that in your abilities.
“And he’s always played quarterback ever since he was a young kid, so that being taken away from him, people telling him how he’s not (a quarterback), either he was going to try to prove people wrong or go a different direction with it.”
That direction turned out to be basketball.
July 1, 2014, the summer before his senior year at Overland, Conway verbally committed to play point guard for Wyoming.
“Honestly, an option quarterback and a point guard are kind of the same thing,” Replogle said. “It’s their job to make sure that the people that are supposed to be getting the ball are getting the ball. And that’s just kind of how he was.
“Everything was real fast with him. He’d press and play great defense, because he’s a competitor. I can see why people think he would be a pretty good corner, because he’s got great defensive skills in basketball. And at the same time, he had no problem driving the lane, risking his body. He could care less.”
Overland reached the Colorado 5A semifinals Austin’s junior year. His senior year, the Trailblazers won the state championship for the first time in school history. Conway scored 18 points in the title game, a game high. Future Wyoming football teammate Alijah Halliburton was also on the team. That same day, the Wyoming men’s basketball team won the Mountain West tournament to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Conway redshirted as a true freshman with the Wyoming men’s basketball team, but before basketball season ever tipped off, Conway began to second-guess his decision. On Sept. 5, Wyoming football played its season opener in Laramie against North Dakota.
“I was just sitting there watching like, ‘Dang,’” Conway said. “‘I was one decision away from being out here playing on the football field.’ And that kind of hit home. It was like, ‘You know what, did I do the right thing? Did I make the right decision?’
“I went and gave basketball a try the entire year, and at the end of the year, my heart just continued to sway onto the football field. It was hard watching a season of football and not playing it. That was definitely hard for me.”
Conway spent spring camp of 2016 with the football team to make up his mind. He decided on football, joining former Overland teammates Kevin Prosser and Halliburton, who would arrive in the fall as a true freshman.
That Conway would revert to football was no surprise to some. The surprise was that he committed to basketball in the first place.
“I did tell Coach Bohl,” Replogle said. “I go, ‘Hey, he’s going to switch to football, and you’re going to be given a gift right there.’”
Football may have been home for Conway, but quarterback was still off the table.
“That piece of the dream was gone,” Replogle said, “and he just wanted to play.”
In Wyoming’s pro-style offense, 6-5 Josh Allen is more of the mold. So Bohl put Conway at receiver, and he ended up winning the punt returning job as well, though he had no special teams experience.
As Wyoming’s Swiss army knife, Conway scored touchdowns by rush, return and pass as a redshirt sophomore. He recorded 223 total yards of offense, but he was still limited in his skill as a true wide receiver. More often than not, if Vigen wanted to get Conway the ball, he had to do it with a jet sweep.
So in the offseason, Conway set out to change that.
“I think it was certainly our charge to him,” Vigen said, “our hope that he would be able to be an every-down type of guy.”
Much like his development as a high school quarterback, Conway set out to become a full-fledged receiver, rather than an athlete who happened to play there. With Askew, his Colorado Wild Youth Sports program and its numerous DI alumni, Conway worked on his routes daily.
“He was dedicated,” Askew said. “You could tell that that urge to want to be the man has arisen in him.”
Conway also worked on his speed four days a week with trainer Loren Landow, who has worked with speedsters such as Carolina Panther rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. But running routes was Conway’s main focus.
“With my quickness, I knew that that’s not enough,” he said. “You can be a great route runner and be quick and then you can be really dangerous. I had a lot of people help me with that this offseason. I feel really comfortable, and I feel great. I feel like I belong at receiver.”
If Conway isn’t a true receiver now, don’t tell Gardner-Webb. He set career highs with 11 catches for 135 yards and a touchdown in Wyoming’s home-opening win against the Runnin’ Bulldogs. Allen targeted Conway on six of his first seven throws. Pro Football Focus gave Conway the highest Week Two grade of any Mountain West offensive player, and he did it by playing like a wide receiver.
Askew said his little brother now looks like an entirely different player.
“We’ve got kids that, they can’t touch him,” he said. “We’ve got an Oregon commit Adrian Jackson, probably one of our better press guys, can’t touch him. They can’t touch him. He’s so quick, and he stops on a dime, it’s hard to touch him, and you have to respect his speed.
“That’s the scary thing about it is you can’t touch him, can’t jam him. He’s going to shake you up at the line, and you’ve got to respect his speed. That makes for a dangerous weapon.”
Askew raised former Viking Percy Harvin as a comparison multiple times when discussing Conway. Of course, Askew might have a little family bias; it’s a little early to be discussing the NFL prospects of a player with 289 career receiving yards. Nonetheless, Askew isn’t the only one. He said former Rams quarterback Tim Jenkins, who also helps with the Colorado Wild, said Conway reminds him of Rams slot man Tavon Austin.
“He’s like, ‘He’s so much like him, it’s not even funny,’” Askew said.
At the very least, Conway is a blessing for a Wyoming football team that didn’t have a shot at recruiting him in the first place. Even more so, considering the offseason losses at the receiver position the Cowboys are still trying to overcome.
Through two games, Conway is tied for fifth in the nation with nine receptions per game.
“I’ve put in a lot of work this offseason, and it’s starting to show,” Conway said before the season even started. “I feel like everybody’s starting to notice, and I know I’m taking notice as well. The work you put in is going to show. I’ve put in a lot of work.”
Out of context, that can sound like cockiness, and Replogle said some people mistakenly get that impression with Conway.
“It’s really not that,” he said. “It’s just he’s confident and he’s going to be a competitor, and he’s going to win and he’s going to do whatever it takes to do that.”
“He wants the ball in his hand, because he feels that when you work hard enough, you don’t doubt yourself,” Askew said. “You put in the work, you do certain things, you’re going to reap benefits, and that’s what he believes.”
Besides, there are worse character traits for a receiver to have. The moral of Conway’s athletic career thus far has called to mind one famously cocky receiver’s motto:
Give him the damn ball.