Byron Cowart didn’t play like the nation’s top defensive prospect during his first season on the Plains.
Auburn received very little production from the defensive end’s 20 snaps a game.
It was even worse behind closed doors where the five-star prospect out of Armwood High School in Florida became an easy target during practice.
“They (Cowart’s teammates) were flat dominating him and I ain’t talking about good players dominating him,” Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner said Monday morning. “Anybody that was willing to line up on him beat him down. We had guys when Byron got out there they were jumping up in line. Walk-ons were going he’s a five-star?”
Garner doesn’t sugarcoat Cowart’s struggles as he happily reports the sophomore has made significant strides shedding the bad practice habits — many of them mental — that held him back last season.
“He has a long ways to go, but just fighting and competing you don’t understand how important it is,” Garner said. “It’s the number one thing”
The most recent example came during Saturday’s practice when a cocky Marlon Davidson lined up across from Cowart for a physical one-on-one contract drill.
Garner can’t picture the same scenario happening last year when Cowart shied away from competition. Cowart’s “refreshing turnaound” started with a strong spring camp.
“It’s awesome,” Garner said. “It’s not just on the field. I’ve seen that same progress in his life — outlook on life, his demeanor, how he goes about his day — so many times you saw Byron looking defeated, he ain’t that guy.”
New defensive coordinator Kevin Steele made similar observations last week.
“You've heard me say before, the expectations for him were unfair,” Steele said. “That's unfair because every guy's different, but he's handled it very well. He's come back really prepared to play and worked hard and developed and even today showed some really good physical toughness."
While Cowart was one of four Auburn players arrested for marijuana possession in late April, the incident was a minor footnote for the coaching staff. The players were handed an undisclosed punishment earlier this summer that didn’t include missing any playing time.
Cowart can keep his focus this fall on cracking the top an expected eight to 10 player rotation on the defensive line. The sophomore has made an impression even as he’s worked mainly with the second team defense during open viewing periods for reporters.
“He’s moving closer to the guy with the swag he walked in with,” Garner said.