MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Saturday, West Virginia finally gets to open the box to play with its brand-new VanDarius Cowan.
Cowan transferred to WVU from Alabama last summer, but had to sit out a year due to NCAA transfer rules before waiting another four games due to an NCAA-mandated suspension that carried over from his time with the Crimson Tide.
His position, bandit, is one where the Mountaineers have been aching for more production in the first portion of the season. They’ve only gotten 0.5 tackles for loss from that spot.
But is it fair to expect Cowan to provide an immediate fix?
“Our expectations have to be reasonable,” said West Virginia coach Neal Brown. “He hasn’t played a football game in well over two years. At Alabama, he played special teams and a little bit of defense.”
Cowan appeared in seven games as a freshman, recording both of his two career tackles against overmatched FCS opponent Mercer.
Coaches have an idea of what Cowan can do, but all of it remains theoretical.
“We don’t know yet what he does best,” said defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. “He’s got some football instincts. Sometimes it’s important to have a guy that just has good instincts. If I’m fitting off a lineman, I’m not just running up the lineman’s tail end, but fitting the gap. I think he has some good feel and good vision.”
Players who have practiced with Cowan have set a higher bar of expectation.
“He’s very athletic, very long. I can’t say enough about his athletic ability and what he brings to that bandit position,” said defensive end Reese Donahue. “He can be an asset to us. I’m excited to see what he does on Saturday.”
Even in spring football, Donahue could see that Cowan is an excellent cologne.
“If I do something wrong, he can make it right just by sheer talent and athleticism,” Donahue said. “He fixes a lot of mistakes by just playing hard.”
Senior left tackle Colton McKivitz has previously stated that Cowan is the toughest guy to block in practice.
“He’s got a pretty big toolbox,” McKivitz said. “He’s a really good bull-rusher, but he also brings speed off the edge.”
The bigger questions around Cowan pertain to what he is off the field.
Cowan was kicked off Alabama’s team after being arrested for assault when he cold-cocked a patron walking into a Tuscaloosa bar. Ever since that July 2018 arrest, the incident has hovered over him as the last major thing he did to grab the attention of the general public.
Getting to know Cowan has painted a different picture. Donahue realizes Cowan wouldn’t be here if not for an egregious mistake, but also doesn’t think of his teammate as a villain.
“He’s a comedian. He’s funny,” Donahue said. “The way the media works now, no one can really be in the middle. You have to be a really great guy or a really bad guy.
“Everyone gives him a bad rap because of what happened. But I think he’s a relatively good person on and off the field. I’m not worried about anything that’s happened in the past with him.”
Donahue said the team’s player leadership council put an emphasis on keeping Cowan engaged and feeling part of the team during his suspension.
“Keeping him plugged in was really important,” Donahue said. “It’s our job [as a leadership council] to watch it and monitor it, but really the whole team can enforce it.”
This spring, Koenning wasn’t convinced Cowan would ever play a down for the Mountaineers. Without getting into specifics, he noted that Cowan had a lot of work to put in if he was going to make it.
Koenning has seen players in that situation fall by the wayside before. He’s pleased that Cowan isn’t one of them.
“He’s still here, so that’s a big positive,” Koenning said. “I’m not saying that sarcastically or to be against him. He has had to be persistent and not give up. Calvin Coolidge has got a saying about persistence – I’m not fluent enough to sit and recite it – but as long as you show up to work every day and you ain’t quitting, you ain’t leaving.”