In the span of a few minutes early Tuesday night, Byron Cowart explained to reporters the two extremes that had led him here to Maryland, a defensive lineman once considered one of the nation’s top recruits starting over at a success-starved football program.
Three years ago, Cowart was the country’s top-rated prospect, according to Rivals.com and ESPN.com. A 6-foot-4 dynamo from just east of Tampa, Fla., he signed with Auburn but could’ve gone anywhere. He was at the top of the sport, but not until he’d fallen from his perch did he learn what he needed to. “Because when you have everything,” he said, “you take it for granted.”
Something got lost along the way, Cowart acknowledged. He struggled with the Tigers, and with his struggles came self-doubt, and with self-doubt came an ultimate reckoning with whether he could or would play much longer.
“At one point, I was like, 'Can I even do this anymore?' ” he recalled on the practice field inside Cole Field House, where hours earlier coach DJ Durkin had raved about maybe the most important transfer of his tenure.
Twice Durkin called Cowart “tremendous,” a descriptor not often uttered about Maryland’s defensive line last season, especially after starting defensive end Jesse Aniebonam suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 1. The Terps finished tied for No. 112 nationally and second to last in the Big Ten Conference in sacks (16 in 12 games) and ranked No. 92 in rushing defense (190.8 yards per game allowed).
“Byron’s doing a really good job both in the run and the pass,” Durkin said. “You can really just see him … and he’s been better and better every practice. Byron’s been tremendous. He’s really taken his job seriously. He’s a mature guy. He works really hard. He’s been a great leader for other guys on the team. He’s doing great for us.”
Cowart stood out for parts of Tuesday’s open practice, and not just because of the 6-foot-4, 270-pound junior’s No. 9 jersey choice (he wore No. 99 in high school but prefers the single-digit look of his playing idol, Dante Fowler, who wore No. 6 at Florida). In one play, matched up against reserve right guard Ellis McKennie, he deked left and swam back right, shoving McKennie aside so quickly, help couldn’t arrive in time.
Only the rules meant to keep Maryland’s quarterbacks as safe as humanly possible kept him from a crunching sack.
“He's just a big, strong dude with great athleticism, good head on his shoulders and a lot of upside,” center Brendan Moore said.
Why that wasn’t as apparent at Auburn is still unclear. Expected to make an immediate impact as a freshman in 2015, Cowart played sparingly and finished with just six tackles and no sacks in five games with the Tigers.
After the season, Cowart acknowledged on social media that he felt the pressure to succeed.
"Being penalized because i was number 1 player but I'm struggling i don't care about the stars,” Cowart posted to his since-deleted Twitter account. “So why when i struggle its thrown in my face. How about help me huh? I came in humble ready to learn man not bragging and flashy. I just wanna learn."
Cowart improved somewhat as a sophomore — six tackles, six quarterback hurries and one forced fumble while playing in all 13 games — but was beat out before last season by true freshman Marlon Davidson and eventually moved to defensive tackle. He left Auburn after three games last season, went back home to Seffner, Fla., and took classes at a local junior college.
At Maryland, where he will have two years of eligibility remaining, there was a familiarity with the program, which he considered coming out of high school, and with Durkin, who recruited him as an assistant coach at Florida. About the only thing he said he’s struggled with so far is the cold winter weather.
“There would be some days [at Auburn] when I was like, 'Man, I'm dreading practice,' and stuff,” he said. “But now, this is my sanctuary. I come — I don't even think about what's going on outside. When I'm on the field, I just can have fun. I got my confidence back. I'm feeling good.”