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Once An Elite Recruit, Maryland's Byron Cowart Takes Turbulent Path To NFL Draft

January 31, 2019
Former Maryland defensive end Byron Cowart seemed destined for success before he ever enrolled in college.

Cowart was rated the No. 1 overall recruit nationally by ESPN and No. 3 in 247Sports' composite rankings. The Seffner, Fla., native committed to Auburn on National Signing Day in February 2015, and he signed with the school on the same day. 

Then, his career at Auburn went sideways. He played in 13 games as a freshman in 2015, totaling just six tackles. He was one of four Tigers arrested for marijuana possession the following offseason. He played in 10 games as a sophomore, again posting just six tackles, and he had an emergency appendectomy in November 2016.  

After two years, Cowart had played in 23 games for the Tigers and had 12 tackles to his name.

"Coming out of high school, I was just thinking, OK, you see these highlights on YouTube. [Houston Texans defensive end] Jadeveon Clowney was the guy at the time," Cowart said on Glenn Clark Radio Jan. 30. "I was No. 1 on ESPN. He was No. 1 [in 2011]. So I'm thinking, 'Boom, I'm going to have this Jadeveon Clowney career.' And I never once thought adversity. What happens if I don't fit this scheme for this team, or if I don't fit the defense? I didn't even know what adversity was."

Cowart played in three games for Auburn as a junior in 2017 before leaving the school -- he finished with no sacks in 26 games for the Tigers -- and enrolling at Hillsborough Community College in Florida. Cowart cited his lack of playing time and his mother's health issues as reasons for leaving Auburn.

Cowart's next stop was Maryland, which added him for immediate help along the edge after a 2017 season in which the Terps struggled to pressure the passer. Cowart (6-foot-4, 293 pounds) had what was easily the best season of his college career: 38 tackles, five tackles for a loss, three sacks and two interceptions.

Cowart was invited to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., and played on the North team with fellow Terp Darnell Savage Jr. Cowart drew positive reviews for his work in practice leading up to the game Jan. 26.

"I used to write notes in my Bible and pray to God. I'm like, 'What's going on?' And it wasn't happening at that moment -- those two or three years I was at Auburn -- but I come to Maryland and I hit the ground running and now everything's starting to pick up for me," Cowart said. "Anybody I meet I tell them, 'Keep fighting. It might not look good right now, but just keep fighting. Stick to your routine and just stay positive even though it's hard.'"

But the adversity Cowart experienced at Auburn couldn't possibly prepare him for what was to come at Maryland. Offensive lineman Jordan McNair suffered heatstroke during a team workout May 29. McNair died June 13 at the age of 19, and the university took responsibility for his death. Former head coach DJ Durkin was placed on administrative leave in August and fired in October.

Given that he didn't know McNair very well, Cowart said he learned from his teammates about the type of person McNair was and the aspirations he had.

"To be honest, I had to lean on a couple of guys. One of the linemen, Ellis [McKennie], he was really close with Jordan. Me being the new guy coming in, I just really took the back seat and I was just trying to listen," Cowart said. "And I mean, I was crying. We all were crying just trying to grieve. I don't know. To this day, to be honest, I still can't really process it. I remember crying at the funeral. I had hugged Jordan's dad. I can't relate to what he's going through because that's his son, his flesh and blood. That was tough, that was tough. I would never compare anything I've been through to that."

Investigations into the death of McNair and the culture of the Maryland football program took months to complete, and the Terps went 5-7 under interim head coach Matt Canada in the meantime. Cowart helped the Terps' defense improve from its disappointing 2017 campaign when the team finished 13th in the 14-team Big Ten in total defense. Maryland was seventh in 2018.

Now, Cowart is looking to turn the page on a turbulent college career and make his mark in the NFL. 

"I was looking at the calendar and I left for Maryland on January the 27th of last year, and I was like, 'Wow, bro. Time flew by,'" Cowart said. "... At this point, people definitely know Byron Cowart can play at the next level. Like I tell everybody, I'm looking for this opportunity that Maryland gave me and I took advantage of it. I'm looking for it from an NFL standpoint now. I'm looking for a team that's willing to give me an opportunity, and I take advantage of it and I learn and I grow with experience because I've done it. I've done it before, so now I'm just looking for another one."

To hear more from Cowart, listen to the full interview here:

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox