The decision has been made. Byron Cowart, the No. 1 overall prospect in the recruiting class of 2015, according to Rivals.com, has finally made his choice. The explosive defensive end is headed to Auburn.
Simply put, Cowart looks like he was engineered in a lab to rush the quarterback. He is strong, fast and has shown that rare ability to use both of those things to his advantage pretty much whenever he wants. In the week leading up to the Under Armour All-America Game, Cowart showcased that early and often. He was an absolute terror in drills, and ultimately earned MVP honors for his team.
The 6-foot-4 defensive lineman out of Armwood (Fla.) High seems to elevate his game when he’s around other elite players, which should bode well in the SEC, where one can’t punt a football without hitting a former five-star recruit. Cowart and the rest of Auburn’s 2015 class are tasked with rebuilding a Tigers’ defense that was a letdown in ’14. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn brought in Will Muschamp as his coordinator to fix things, and that was the school's in with Cowart, who had already established a very good relationship with the former Florida coach.
That relationship mattered to Cowart, allowing the Tigers to make a late push.
Auburn started 5-0 in 2014, including a 41-7 pummeling of LSU on Oct. 4. Then the wheels came off. The Tigers dropped five of their final eight, including a 55-44 loss to Alabama in the Iron Bowl and a 34-31 overtime loss to Wisconsin the Outback Bowl. Cowart will have a chance to come in and make a difference from the get-go, which clearly meant something.
As for Florida, the opportunity to stay local was a big draw. The Gators had obviously been involved in Cowart’s recruiting for a while, and he even picked up the tradition of carrying around a Chucky doll from former Florida stars Dominique Easley and Dante Fowler Jr. When Jim McElwain became the new Gators coach, he made a concerted effort to continue recruiting Cowart, and it almost paid off. McElwain has his work cut out for him; Florida won a combined 11 games over the past two seasons after averaging 10.5 from 2006-12.
McElwain built Colorado State quickly, taking the Rams from four wins in his debut season to 10 wins in 2014. Florida fans certainly hope that transformation happens overnight. Despite the miss on Cowart, there are still plenty of great defenders on Florida’s roster, and defense was never the problem under Muschamp. McElwain’s calling card is offense, and that’s where the program needs to get better -- fast.
It’s always hard to gauge how top defensive end prospects will contribute in their freshman seasons. Da’Shawn Hand, last year’s No. 1 overall recruit, was stuck behind Jarran Reed and D.J. Pettway on Alabama's depth chart and didn’t get to show what he could do. Myles Garrett, meanwhile, made an instant impact at Texas A&M. Garrett showed the potential of being not only one of the best defensive players in the SEC, but also in all of college football.
Now that the hoopla is finally over, Cowart can look forward to making his own SEC impact. He has already grown into his body, so early playing time is a real possibility if he continues to show the sort of work ethic he did at the All-America game. At least, that’s what Auburn fans hope will happen.