“The Tigers need pass-rushers and Byron Cowart was perhaps the most college-ready in the entire 2015 recruiting cycle.”
“Cowart's quickness and burst off the line is other-worldly. He overwhelms offensive tackles before they can get set or get their hands on him.”
“Defensively, he's game-changer. He goes about his business, he's a leader, he was team captain -- he plays when the moment is big and he gets it.”
This is just a sample of what was said about Cowart when the five-star defensive end signed with Auburn in February 2015. As the No. 1 player in the ESPN 300 during that recruiting cycle, there were huge expectations.
Even Auburn coach Gus Malzahn added to the hype when he discussed the 2015 class shortly after the ink had dried on national signing day.
"You're talking about the best player in the country, so yeah, he'll have a chance to compete and have a chance to be on the field immediately with his skill set," Malzahn said.
Cowart was on the field immediately. He recorded two tackles in Auburn’s season opener and played about 20 snaps a game. But statistically, the results never showed up. The opener represented his highest tackle output of the season, and he finished his freshman campaign with six tackles and six quarterback hurries.
It wasn’t the production everybody expected from the nation’s top-ranked recruit, but former Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp – now the head coach at South Carolina – believed Cowart still made progress from Day 1 to the end of the season.
“The SEC is a very difficult league, especially on the line of scrimmage, so to come in as a freshman and be a dominant player, that’s very difficult to do,” Muschamp recently told ESPN.com. “I thought Byron made tremendous strides for me as a coach, and I think he’ll be much more productive this year.
"Byron is a really good football player. He’s a great young man. And he’s going to have tremendous success at Auburn."
Cowart isn’t the first player ranked No. 1 in the ESPN 300 to struggle as a freshman, and it’s proved to be more common among defensive linemen.
Ronald Powell, the top recruit in 2010, finished with 25 tackles and one sack his first year at Florida. Two years later, Mario Edwards Jr. made 17 tackles and 1.5 sacks at Florida State. Even Robert Nkemdiche, a physical freak at 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, had trouble adjusting to the college game.
“Physically, he was always pretty special," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said of Nkemdiche, who had 28 tackles and a sack as a freshman. “I think probably the thing you see the most in a guy like him is just adjusting to the work that’s involved in an SEC program. That’s a little bit different when you’re going to lift this much or you’re going to run this much consistently throughout the year and not just in a season, like you may or may not have in high school.”
If there has been an exception among No. 1 recruits over the last decade, it was South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound defensive dominated as a freshman, finishing with 36 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. But like most of the others, he still saw a spike in his numbers from Year 1 to Year 2, when he had 54 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks.
Ultimately, that’s the hope for Cowart.
The Florida native came to Auburn not knowing what to expect, and then he started working with his position coach, Rodney Garner. Garner is known for “derecruiting” his players once they get on campus, and it was no different with Cowart.
Fellow defensive lineman Montravius Adams, ranked No. 13 in the ESPN 300 in 2013, went through the same process when he was a freshman.
“To me, it was hard because I had never had that kind of coaching,” Adams said, referring to Garner. “I just had to sit down and talk to him, understand everything and try to understand the game better and just get better as a player and a person.”
According to Adams, Cowart has done that this offseason and is better for it. He’s already made an impression among the defensive linemen.
“He struggled last year a little bit, but at the end of the season he started picking it up,” Adams said. “Like I said, he’s trying to run with it. He’s trying to be one of those players.”
There’s still time for Cowart to live up to the hype. Maybe the expectations set for him last year weren’t completely fair. Not every top recruit is Jadeveon Clowney. But if recent history repeats itself, then we should expect a better, more dominant version of Cowart this fall.