FOXBOROUGH — Eric Rowe didn’t make a good first impression on Kyle Whittingham.
You see, the Utah coach is big on body language and Rowe wasn’t articulating his particularly well during their initial interaction.
Rowe was a standout defensive back and return man at Klein High School in suburban Houston, and Utah assistant Morgan Scalley, who had been wowed by Rowe’s film, invited him to the Utes’ summer camp in Salt Lake City.
As the campers were preparing to run their 40s, Rowe caught Whittingham’s eye. But for all the wrong reasons.
“Eric’s walking around before his 40 just lurpy, not jumping around or getting excited to run, and Kyle turns to me and says, ‘This kid’s going to run, like, a 4.7,’ ’’ Scalley recalled this week. “He was not real fired up for Eric.’’
After stumbling out of the gate, Rowe blazed through his 40, literally turning Whittingham’s head.
“Kyle turned to me said, ‘What’d you get?’ and I said, ‘4.4,’ ’’ said Scalley.
Rowe walked past the coaches kind of nonchalantly, and an incredulous Whittingham told him to run again.
“Boom, he runs another 4.4,’’ said Scalley. “Kyle just shook his head and said, ‘Holy cow.’ ’’
So much for first impressions.
To Scalley, that scene paints a perfect picture of Rowe.
“He’s a Jekyll and Hyde, really,” said Scalley. “Off the field, he’s so mild-mannered. Doesn’t say a whole lot. Happy go lucky. Which would make most coaches frustrated because they’d think he was disengaged or not fired up. But he gets on that field and he wants to rip your face off.’’
Rowe arrived in Foxborough five days before the season opener in a trade from Philadelphia, and after sitting out the first five weeks, he has been ripping it up pretty good the second half of the season.
He has been extremely versatile in the secondary, playing inside and on the edge. At 6 feet 1 inch and 205 pounds with long arms and good strength, Rowe has the skills to cover bigger receivers. He also possesses quickness and backpedals smoothly to thrive out of the slot.
What’s most impressive is that Rowe is in just his third season as a cornerback. He played safety his first three seasons at Utah before necessity forced a change to corner.
“He was pretty much a sideline-to-sideline playmaker for us as a safety,’’ said Whittingham.
Making the jump from corner to safety is common — look no further than Devin McCourty as Exhibit A — but swapping from safety to corner is a bit more unusual.
“First off, you need speed, and he has it,’’ said Scalley. “I’m not sure our cornerbacks coach was thrilled at first. But after the first practice, we all looked at each other and said, ‘Yeah, this is where he needs to be.’ ’’
The switch, like his debut in the 40, was rough out of the gate, but he recovered quickly, had a great senior season, and eventually was drafted by the Eagles in the second round.
“It was tough at first,’’ said the soft-spoken Rowe. “Obviously a new position, there were some growing pains. But I got a lot more comfortable with it. I got a lot better at the little techniques it takes to play corner.
“There’s still a lot of room for improvement. That’s no excuse, though. It’s the NFL, you’ve got to get it done.’’
Rowe’s transition from the Eagles to the Patriots has mirrored his position switch.
“Everything’s going smooth,’’ he said. “I’ve moved around quite a bit, but I’ve settled in nice. Kind of by midseason I got to know the defense and everything’s been good.’’
He said the culture at One Patriot Place is unlike any he’s experienced.
“The work ethic and what the coaches demand from us is unique here,’’ said Rowe, who is preparing for his first taste of postseason football Saturday night. “It’s a lot harder and it’s a lot more, but it’s for a good reason.’’
He also appreciates how he was welcomed so warmly.
“I came in right in the middle of game planning time for Week 1 — they were getting ready for ‘Sunday Night Football,’ ’’ he said. “But everyone was really open.’’
He has depended on that openness as his role continued to grow.
“The corners have helped with the play calls and the checks you need to make within the plays, so that helped my transition go smooth,’’ said Rowe, who also leans heavily on safeties Patrick Chung and McCourty because “they know this defense inside and out.’’
Bill Belichick has been impressed with Rowe’s progression.
“Eric’s continued to get better as he’s grown in our system,’’ said the coach. “Communication, techniques, communication with the other defensive backs and our scheme, some of the techniques and various coverages and situations, and just more familiarity, more practice, more experience. He’s done a good job for us.”
Though the Patriots are squaring off against Rowe’s hometown team, he’ll have no split allegiance. In fact, he didn’t grow up a Texans fan. Or even a Cowboys fan. He backed another NFL franchise. A franchise with no Texas ties.
Cover your eyes, Patriots fans.
“I was a huge Colts fan back in the day,” said Rowe. “Peyton Manning, Dallas Clark, Marvin Harrison, all those guys.”
His memories of postseasons past involving his new team aren’t among his favorites.
“The Pats? I was pretty mad they were beating my Colts all the time,’’ he said. “I remember the big hits from Ty Law and Rodney Harrison. Especially Rodney Harrison. They were just real physical.’’
That’s a trait Rowe hopes to emulate as he attempts to make a good first impression on the Texans.