SALT LAKE CITY — Eric Rowe may be the University of Utah’s least experienced cornerback.
But the coach over that position group said the senior doesn’t even have to step on the field to make the Utes a better football team.
“I love him,” said Utah cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah. “I love his attitude. He makes our room better having such a smart kid. You sit there with him and he’s able to say, ‘Coach, as a safety, this is what we’re looking at.’ Now my boys, my corners are thinking about their safety. Like, ‘Oh, this is why we need to get certain jam in the coverage.’ So to have his voice in there is always good.”
After three years playing safety for Utah, the business administration major was asked to make the switch to cornerback this spring. He’s splitting time between the two positions right now, but Ute coaches said they believe the former Texas prep standout will spend most of his time at cornerback in his final collegiate season.
“To have him have the ability to switch back and forth from corner to safety, it’s twofold,” Shah said of the rationale behind having him take reps at both positions this spring. “One, until we are deep enough at (safety), we need our best 11 athletes on the field. Hands down, Eric Rowe is one of our best 11 athletes.” With at least four promising freshmen vying for time — and senior Brian Blechen back from a season-long injury last year — Utah should have plenty of options at safety. The place the Utes needed more depth was corner.
“We found ourselves in a bad situation the last few years at certain points throughout the season,” said Shah. “We weren’t deep enough, and we’re scarcely deep enough now, so to prevent the same situation we need the best people on the field.”
The defensive staff got together and decided Rowe was the best candidate to move to corner.
“He was awesome,” said safeties coach Morgan Scalley of Rowe’s willingness to change positions. “He’s always been a great kid, a team player. He misses the contact; he misses being involved in the action every down.”
But when coaches looked at what they needed to be successful in the 2014 campaign, there was no doubt what they needed to ask of Rowe, who was a freshman All-American and honorable mention All-Pac 12 as a sophomore.
“He’s so explosive,” Scalley said. “A kid like that, his size (listed at 6-1, 205 pounds) and can run a 4.39 (40-yard dash). He can flip his hips and move the way he does; he’s really doing some good things.” In just a few practices, Rowe has proved himself valuable on and off the field because of his intelligence, work ethic and athletic skill.
“The ability he has to play physical on the line of scrimmage, to run with wide receivers,” said Scalley. “He’s not a natural post player, a center fielder, but we had him out there out of necessity. But with the group we have coming in (to play safety), we feel like we can have a good enough group of athletes to take care of that.”
Scalley said asking a player to change positions a year before graduation is not a small thing. But if any Ute defensive athlete is equipped to do it, it’s Rowe.
“The corner spot is the least amount of learning scheme-wise,” Scalley said. “It’s the hardest position on the field — period. You pull up the first three days of him at corner (on film) and it’s like, ‘Wow.’ Yeah, there are some really good things.”
Rowe would rather play safety. It’s what he’s always played, what he enjoys, and he believes it is where his strengths are most evident.
“It’s a lot different,” he said. “Safety is more mental in the sense of defensive schemes and knowing what everybody else does. Corner is a lot more tiring, more running and guarding receivers.
But he is also enjoying the opportunity to have a chance to prove his versatility.
“It’s a new challenge,” Rowe said. “I like new challenges and to help the team out. If that’s what we have to do to get to a bowl game, then I’m all for it. And it will help me with my man-to-man coverage.”
Spring practices are the perfect time to make a change because players are focused on technique and getting in shape.
“In the fall, it’s too late to try and improve,” Rowe said. “That’s what the spring is for. It’s all about improving. If you get beat, mess up on the gap, it’s all about improving your game so that when the fall comes, you have that skill set instead of trying to learn it during the season.”
Rowe hopes he’s able to focus on one position in the fall, but he’s also comfortable being used however the team’s needs dictate.
“I hope I lock on one position,” he said. “But if they need me to bounce back and forth, I can do it. Before, when I was a safety, I knew what the corner was supposed to do. (Switching) really wasn’t much of a big deal to me.”
The biggest issue, he said with a laugh, is getting in shape.
“I need to be in better cardio shape,” he said. “That’s basically what I’m out here doing this spring.”
Shah said that Rowe will only make himself more marketable to NFL scouts by playing corner this season.
“He’s a phenomenal safety, so you want to play where you’re used to,” Shah said. “But having Eric understand that he can become much more marketable in the eyes of folks at the next level is important. If you really want to play on Sunday, show that you can be versatile in a lot of different roles.”
It’s not just that he can play more than one position, it’s that he has the ability to excel in a position that really allows a player to be a star.
“Because of defense, our scheme, we run a lot of man coverage, and we give good athletes a chance to showcase their talent,” Shah said.
Putting defensive players — especially corners and defensive linemen — in the NFL is a point of particular pride for Ute coaches.
“We have a streak of putting a guy in the NFL for the last seven or eight years,” Shah said. “And it’s something that’s very important to us.”
Rowe appreciates that the switch may make him more likely to have opportunities in the NFL, but his first priority is helping Utah have a winning season next fall. In order to do that, he said he’s willing to play almost anywhere.
“I wouldn’t want to play offense,” he said with a smile. “I don’t like getting hit. I like to give ’em.”
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