AUBURN, Alabama — Long before his arrest, Byron Cowart faced scrutiny on and off the field.
Expectations were high for the nation’s No. 1 recruit in 2015, but he didn’t quite have the five-star season so many outside the Auburn football program expected.
And his coaches have an issue with those expectations.
“Unfairly expected of him,” said defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, “because it’s a different transition for every individual, for a lot of reasons, and he’s certainly a physical talent. He’s an outstanding young man and I’ve only got 15 days of body of work of evaluating him and he got better each day. And those things we asked him to do: to play hard and tackle, those types of things, then master his craft with his technique, he improved.”
Cowart is facing a misdemeanor possession of marijuana charge following an arrest April 30. Three teammates — cornerback Carlton Davis, defensive backs Jeremiah Dinson and receiver Ryan Davis — face the same charges and are scheduled to face the judge July 21 in Lee County.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has taken a silent approach on the legal matter as he gathers more information. On the field, Cowart already faced criticism. Some hoped he would provide the perfect bookend for Carl Lawson on the other side of the defensive line, but that never developed and he finished with six tackles and six quarterback hurries in 13 games.
“I think it was tough for Byron to adjust for (what) Byron wants for him,” defensive line coach Rodney Garner said in March. “Everybody sits there and says what I want from him. The one thing about it is when you watch the film, the film doesn’t lie. Byron will be the first one to tell you it was a major adjustment. They’re not playing against 190-pound offensive linemen any more. Those days are over. You’re playing against 300-pounders. They’re big, powerful, explosive guys and they want to break your neck every single time the ball turns over.”
In this world of high expectations and immediate results, Cowart has had to learn how to adjust. Garner said he was doing just that before the arrest.
“Sometimes these recruiting services, you guys build them up so big and the fans come in and have all these expectations and you no idea what it takes to play. Zero,” Garner said. “Those kids have to come in and get to the realization that, you know what, I have to go out here and compete in practice and I got to perform in practice. I don’t care about them stars. Nobody cares about stars. You think that guy lined up across from him cares that you ranked him five stars? It probably motivates him more to beat his butt.”
The key theme: Every first-year player is different. Cowart, however, faces more competition this fall from newcomers Paul James III and Marlon Davidson, who was the surprise player of spring practices.
“They have to guard against all this pressure that everybody has placed on them that they’ve got to come in and be an instant success,” Garner said. “Some guys are just quicker than others, but that doesn’t equate to success or failure, I don’t think. This guy may be able to come in Year 1 and live up to some of those expectations. This guy may not live up to those expectations until year two or three. But that doesn’t equate to whether he is successful or not.”