Almost from the day he arrived at Auburn three years ago, Byron Cowart knew something was wrong.
It went beyond his inability to get to opposing quarterbacks. It wasn’t even about the pressure of being ESPN’s No. 1 football recruit in the country coming out of high school.
It went back to when Cowart was growing up.
Because he was bigger, and usually faster, than those he was playing against, Cowart got by more on raw, natural talent than technique.
But the best high school prospect in the country didn’t really understand the game he had dominated in youth leagues and later excelled in at Armwood High outside Tampa.
It took more than two years of failure and frustration with the Tigers, as well as his transition the past few months at Maryland, for Cowart to make a startling admission.
“For some reason, I gave off the perception, with me being No. 1 and stuff, they thought I had been playing football for all my life and I had this high [football] IQ,” Cowart said at Gossett Team House on Wednesday.
“Really, I didn’t have a high football IQ. I’m just now building that to where I can tell the coach, ‘Oh, this is the block I’m getting?’ My IQ has grown a lot since I’ve gotten here — the coach being patient with me, pulling me to the side and teaching me how to play these blocks.”
Four games into his college football career’s restart as a Terp, Cowart has slowly emerged as a more than capable, if not yet dominant, defensive end. Cowart hopes it’s just the start on the road back from what had seemingly become oblivion.
With 14 tackles and two sacks going into Saturday’s game at No. 15 Michigan, Cowart has the same numbers as redshirt senior linebacker Jesse Aniebonam, who is returning to the form he first showed two years ago as one of the Big Ten’s leading pass rushers before missing all of last season but the first half of the opener with a broken ankle.
More importantly, Cowart is again enjoying playing a game he thought about quitting after leaving Auburn.
“Coming here was like a breath of fresh air,” Cowart said. “The monkey was off my back. Coming out of high school, I had all the hype around me, expectations, stuff like that. I fell off that platform, so I was under the radar.
“People knew who I was and what potential I had. Now it was like more getting back on the horse and starting over. Let’s get a new situation and meet the expectations of what everybody saw Byron Cowart being.”
If Cowart has a role model in taking what he called a “step of faith” by leaving Auburn after three games last fall to return home, it’s his mother. Lacroria Wilson, a nurse’s assistant in an independent living facility, did the same thing when her son was in seventh grade when she and only child moved because of “family issues” from Lakeland, Fla., to outside Atlanta and back to Florida in less than a year.
It caused them to live at the nursing home where Wilson was employed in Lawrenceville, Ga. When Wilson informed him of the impending move from Atlanta to Tampa, Cowart said he cried.
“I was like, ‘I can’t go there and play football with them guys,’ ” he recalled. “She said, ‘Not only can you go and play, you will be the best one.’ She made that statement.”
Even in Tampa, it took a while for Cowart and his mother to get settled, living in a Motel 6 the first couple of weeks, then a shelter and a group home before getting their own residence.
“He didn’t adapt good, because he was ashamed,” Wilson said. “Once we got into the home it was a little better because it looked like a house.”
Said Cowart: “It was tough going from thinking you have everything to thinking you have nothing.”
While he received plenty of attention in high school, Armwood coach Sean Callahan told an Alabama newspaper when Cowart was a freshman at Auburn that his high school stats (185 tackles and 29 sacks) were somewhat misleading.
“He was as pretty as they came in high school,” Callahan said. “He could run, he could do all the combine stuff. He got recruited for his body type, but he sure didn’t get recruited for what he did on film or on the field.”
His spotty performance chart in 26 games over two seasons and part of a third at Auburn include making just 15 tackles and no sacks, led to Cowart being labelled the biggest five-star bust in college football.
Cowart unloaded his frustrations on social media, which he said he now regrets.
“For me, it’s funny, because I’m a big guy, I’m a jokester, I’m always happy,” said Cowart, who is listed at 6 feet 4 and 293 pounds. “But when I was there, I didn’t believe in depression, but I was in my bed crying — not wanting to leave, just trying to pray. I was in a sunken place. I wasn’t happy. I felt like I failed myself and my family, everybody.”
Wilson said that she noticed a drastic change in her then 21-year-old son. It forced her to change her work schedule to take the overnight shift so she could get more quality time with him.
“When he came home from Auburn, he was like a totally different person. It hurt me on the inside,” Wilson said Thursday. “Just watching the breakdown in him, I couldn’t deal with it.”
After enrolling at nearby Hillsborough Community College, Cowart didn’t know what his next move was going to be.
“Back home I told my trainer, ‘I don’t think I can play the game no more,’ ” he recalled. “Physically, I beat the eye test. My knowledge for the game was so low. The pressure I came in with was a lot. I thought I was like, ‘Am I just going to get a degree and that’s it?’ ”
It wasn’t until Maryland coach DJ Durkin, who had recruited Cowart as the defensive coordinator under Will Muschamp at Florida, and defensive line coach and co-defensive coordinator Jimmy Brumbaugh, who had held the same position at Kentucky, got in touch with him late last fall that Cowart started to believe his life was going to change.
In order to get accepted academically at Maryland, Cowart had to pass a lot more than eye tests.
In the end, he said he had to take “eight or nine classes” in a span of four months.
“People were trying to discourage me again. ‘You’re not going to be able to do all those classes,’ ” said Cowart, who is majoring in journalism. “It was crazy, but it just showed me that if I put my mind to something, I can really do it. I had homeboys like, ‘Man, just relax’. I told them, ‘I can’t get comfortable here or I’m going to get stuck here. I’ve got to go.’ ”
Woodrow Grady, who has helped train and mentor Cowart since he was a freshman at Armwood High, said Cowart picked Auburn because of its defensive coordinator, Muschamp. When Muschamp left to become the coach at South Carolina before Cowart’s freshman year, things fell apart quickly.
“That’s the downfall when you get too close to a coach,” Grady said Thursday. “That’s what happened to him. I think Auburn played on his confidence and that’s why you didn’t see the production. It’s more about when they don’t embrace you and you don’t get the opportunity. You can’t be a leader sitting on the bench.”
That quality has stood out to interim Maryland coach Matt Canada, who as offensive coordinator didn’t get to know Cowart until he was put in charge after Durkin was placed on administrative leave in August.
“I’ve been really impressed with him as a leader, to be completely honest,” Canada said Tuesday. “I’ve gotten to know him some and he’s a guy who’s tried to take a very vocal part of leading the defense, leading the football team. He’s a guy that when things are said, he makes sure to repeat it to the younger guys. He’s earned the respect of the team. I’m excited about the way he has worked.”
While most of the attention in the spring focused on the return of Aniebonam from a broken ankle, as well as quarterbacks Kasim Hill and Tyrrell Pigrome from torn ACLs, Cowart was coming back from something less obvious — a splintered spirit.
“I was trying to get my swagger back, get my confidence back. I learned that no matter how good you are, if you have no confidence, you’re not going to produce,” Cowart said. “I heard about all the great players coming back — Derwin [Gray], Damian [Prince], Jesse — but I had to focus on Byron first so that they could see, ‘This guy’s a dog. He can help us.’ That was the first step.”
Cowart said the extra time he spent and still spends with Brumbaugh has helped with what can sometimes test a coach’s patience.
“I like to think of myself as a guy who takes a lot of patience,” Cowart said. “College is about developing your young players technique-wise and just teaching them. I demand a lot of attention. Some things I don’t learn or catch on as fast. Being with Coach Jimmy, we get a lot of extra time in after practice just teaching me. That’s what I think it was. I think the player’s always been here. But I just had to get in the right situation.”
Grady, whose Team Tampa youth program has helped produced dozens of college players, including Maryland freshman wide receiver Jeshaun Jones, said Cowart is not that much different than other former high school stars who struggle to make the transition to the next level.
“At each level that you continue to mature and move forward, I always say that everybody gets caught,” Grady said. “What separates you is your knowledge, your football IQ. … The difference now is that Byron is studying the game more than he did before.”
Going into Saturday’s game against Michigan at “The Big House,” Cowart said he can see the possibility of his former self emerging. After a career-high five tackles in the loss to Temple on Sept. 15, Cowart had only three tackles in Maryland’s 42-13 win over Minnesota in the Big Ten opener Sept. 22, but one was the sack that led to Gophers quarterback Zack Annexstad’s fumble.
Cowart said he thinks about the way defensive stars he admires — such as Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller and Chicago Bears linebacker Khalil Mack — can “mess up a game” by getting into their opponent’s backfield.
Asked what the next step will be, Cowart said: “Just a complete game where I really take over the game. That’s what I’m looking forward to. Just being able to mess up a whole game.”