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Houston • When his University of Utah coaches suggested Eric Rowe switch from safety to cornerback in the spring before his senior season of 2014, their pitch was he could help the Utes at a vital position and improve his coverage skills to make him more marketable to the NFL.
Rowe was sold. "I'm all for it," he said, recounting the conversation. "Let's go."
He went all the way to the Super Bowl.
"It ended up helping him out tremendously," said Morgan Scalley, who was Rowe's position coach for those three seasons as a safety and is now Utah's defensive coordinator.
Rowe is not officially a starting cornerback, but he was on the field for 87 percent of New England's defensive plays in the AFC championship game vs. Pittsburgh and he'll be valuable against Atlanta's passing offense in Sunday's Super Bowl LI. The Philadelphia Eagles facilitated Rowe's hometown celebration Klein High School is 29 miles from NRG Stadium by trading him to the Patriots in September, but this whole thing started when Ute coach Kyle Whittingham and then-defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake moved him to cornerback, where assistant Sharrieff Shah helped him develop.
"I'm still learning the position," Rowe said this week. "My third year at corner, obviously there are going to be growing pains."
The Eagles were unwilling to wait for him to develop. A new coaching staff that included defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz inherited him from Chip Kelly, who was fired after Rowe's rookie season. Having fallen to fourth or fifth among Philadelphia's cornerbacks, Rowe was traded four days before the season opener, with the Eagles receiving a conditional fourth-round pick.
As much as Rowe has helped the Patriots, that pick likely will be upgraded. But he's still a bargain for New England.
"He's an intelligent person," said Josh Boyer, New England's cornerbacks coach. "He came to us and tried really hard to fit in right away. He got on board and he's done everything asked of him. When you go from team to team, techniques can be a little different, and I think he's assimilated that pretty well."
Rowe believes his success has come more from discovering a reliable press-coverage technique than anything about New England's system, but having coach Bill Belichick say the team had been watching him at Utah and Philadelphia was encouraging. And he has followed through, recovering from ankle and hamstring injuries to become dependable. Rowe intercepted a pass in the AFC title game and was involved in at least four plays in or near the end zone, all resulting in incompletions.
Working the Houston recruiting territory, Scalley remembers being impressed with high school game film of Rowe, but his practice performance was another story. Boise State's recruiter was scared away by what he witnessed that day, Scalley said.
Scalley had seen enough to invite Rowe to Utah's summer camp, where he ran well and committed to Utah. And once he arrived on campus the following year, Rowe showed that his nonchalance off the field belied his aggressiveness. "You got him on the field, and he wanted to rip your face off," Scalley said.
Rowe started 45 games in four years and ranks No. 3 on Utah's career list with 34 pass breakups. He had one interception in each season, including a pick-six vs. Washington State as a senior. One of his biggest tests as a cornerback came at Michigan, where he defended Devin Funchess, who's now with the Carolina Panthers. Funchess caught four passes, while Rowe made three deflections.
That kind of performance impressed NFL scouts, who liked his versatility. Rowe was drafted No. 47 overall four slots above his more celebrated defensive teammate Nate Orchard, who went to Cleveland.
Rowe became a starter for the Eagles late in his rookie year, but he failed to impress the new coaching staff in training camp. So he's a Patriot, and has become good friends with former BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who arrived from Detroit via trade in October. They live in the same apartment complex and regularly have dinner or attend Celtics games.
"We like to talk about our old Utah days even though he never beat me," Rowe said. "He knows that."
Van Noy went 0-4 against Utah, with three games involving Rowe. But when they became teammates, Van Noy said, "Honestly, it was just refreshing to have a guy that you are just able to talk to and have fun."
During a bus ride across Houston this week, Rowe told Van Noy, "Man, if we win [Sunday], I'm going to go crazy. I get giddy just thinking about it."
Utes in the Super Bowl
The history of former University of Utah players on game-day active rosters for the Super Bowl:
Bowl • Player • Pos. • Team • Result
I • Marv Fleming • • WR • Green Bay • Green Bay 35, Kansas City 10
II • Marv Fleming • WR • Green Bay • Green Bay 33, Oakland 14
V • Roy Jefferson • WR • Baltimore • Baltimore 16, Dallas 13
VI • Marv Fleming • WR • Miami • Dallas 24, Miami 3
VI • Manny Fernandez • DL • Miami • Dallas 24, Miami 3
VII • Marv Fleming • WR • Miami • Miami 14, Washington 7
VII • Manny Fernandez • DL • Miami • Miami 14, Washington 7
VII • Roy Jefferson • WR • Washington • Miami 14, Washington 7
VIII • Marv Fleming • WR • Miami • Miami 24, Minnesota 7
VIII • Manny Fernandez • DL • Miami • Miami 24, Minnesota 7
XVII • Steve Clark • DL • Miami • Washington 27, Miami 17
XIX • Steve Clark DL • Miami • San Francisco 38, Miami 16
XIX • Carl Monroe • RB • San Francisco • San Francisco 38, Miami 16
XXIII • Del Rodgers • RB • San Francisco • San Francisco 20, Cincinnati 16
XXXIII • Jamal Anderson • RB • Atlanta • Denver 34, Atlanta 19
XXXIV • Kevin Dyson • WR • Tennessee • St. Louis 23, Tennessee 16
XXXV • Anthony Davis • LB • Baltimore • Baltimore 34, N.Y. Giants 7
XXXVII • Barry Sims • OL • Oakland • Tampa Bay 48, Oakland 21
XXXVIII • Kevin Dyson • WR • Carolina • New England 32, Carolina 29
XXXVIII • Jordan Gross • OL • Carolina • New England 32, Carolina 29
XXXVIII • Steve Smith • WR • Carolina • New England 32, Carolina 29
XL • Andre Dyson • DB • Seattle • Pittsburgh 21, Seattle 10
XLIII • Chris Kemoeatu • OL • Pittsburgh • Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23
XLV • Chris Kemoeatu • OL • Pittsburgh • Green Bay 31, Pittsburgh 25
XLV • Stevenson Sylvester • LB • Pittsburgh • Green Bay 31, Pittsburgh 25
XLVII • Ma'ake Kemoeatu • DL • Baltimore • Baltimore 34, San Francisco 31
XLVII • Paul Kruger • DL • Baltimore • Baltimore 34, San Francisco 31
XLVII • David Reed • WR • Baltimore • Baltimore 34, San Francisco 31
XLVII • Alex Smith • QB • San Francisco • Baltimore 34, San Francisco 31
XLVIII • Zane Beadles • OL • Denver • Seattle 43, Denver 8
XLIX • Sealver Siliga • DL • New England • New England 28, Seattle 24
50 • Star Lotulelei • DL • Carolina • Denver 24, Carolina 10