Downs quickly validating hype


Few additions to the Ohio State roster have drummed up more excitement and anticipation than safety Caleb Downs, who transferred from Alabama to Columbus in January following legendary head coach Nick Saban’s retirement.

Downs led Alabama in tackles last season as a true freshman en route to being named the SEC Freshman of the Year, and he figures to be a near-consensus preseason All-American pick this summer as he enters his second campaign in new digs.

But while Downs’ talent is unquestionable, transitioning to a second program in as many years is never easy. Learning new coverages and schemes presents a tall challenge for even the most physically capable players, not to mention everything else that comes with being a college student on a new campus in a new city. However, by all accounts, Downs has integrated into the Buckeye program nicely as spring practice nears its conclusion with the spring game on April 13.

“It feels like this is the place to be,” Downs said following Wednesday’s practice. “I’m glad to be here. My family’s been over here, so I’m feeling good.”

Downs admitted Columbus is a stark contrast to the college town of Tuscaloosa he called home this time last year, but noted he’s enjoying everything Columbus has to offer.

“I love the city,” he said. “I love High Street. I love going to the restaurants. The food is great here. You won’t get any complaints from me.”

On the field, Downs’ natural playmaking ability and versatility to play either safety position has already made an impression inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center even if he’s still learning defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ scheme. Downs has been seen this spring working often at the free safety spot despite lining up at strong safety for Alabama last season, and he’s not overly concerned about where he’ll be deployed this season.

“It’s the same spot, really,” Downs said. “The safety playing to the field, playing in the most space, that’s what I’m used to. But at the end of the day, I feel like I can play to the boundary. I can play the dime or money position. I can play nickel. At the end of the day, you have to make plays wherever you’re at.”

Regardless of where he ultimately lines up this fall, Downs isn’t resting on his laurels following an exceptional freshman season.

“I think I can grow on what I did well last year and improve on the qualities I was not elite at during the season,” he said. “So just being better in coverage, being better in the post, being better in my tackling, being a better communicator with my teammates. All that I think I can offer to the team. But at the end of the day, it has to be a team collective to go do what we want to do.”

Whatever Downs lacks regarding scheme comprehension at the moment, don’t expect the learning curve to be very steep. A football junky with an obsession with watching film, Downs is already drawing rave reviews for the work he’s willing to put in to perfect his craft.

“He’s really special,” safeties coach Matt Guerrieri said of Downs on Wednesday. “First off, he puts the work in. You can take talent as a God-given thing, but the discipline and skill that you develop over time in your life, he’s been able to do that. He’s a really disciplined guy. He’s the same every day from a mentality standpoint. He’s the same every day from a work ethic standpoint, so you see that translate to the field. He’s probably in the film room more than anybody on the entire defense, maybe. He puts that type of effort in, and he’s done a great job of pushing the envelope with other guys to make sure the standard’s that way.”

Downs’ work ethic isn’t only having an impact on his teammates. Guerrieri, who is entering his first season as a full-time coach at Ohio State, said that because Downs’ level of preparation is so high, it’s forced him to be an “elite teacher” in order to match what Downs brings to the table.

“It’s like coaching a professional player,” Guerrieri said. “He understands the concepts of the game so well, and he’s put so much time into it. As a coach, you better be matching or equaling that or even going above and beyond that because if not, he’s going to be a step ahead of the coach. It’s been awesome to push each other, to make each other better. He has a great understanding and feel for the game. He’s a great young man.”

Guerrieri added, “The work ethic is really high-level. So every value that you would look for — not just a skill or intangible — but who he is as a person, I can’t say enough about who Caleb Downs is. It’s been awesome.”

Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.

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