College Football
Ryan Day's vision for Caleb Downs on offense was born before he landed at Ohio State
College Football

Ryan Day's vision for Caleb Downs on offense was born before he landed at Ohio State

Updated Jun. 27, 2024 12:47 p.m. ET

By the time Caleb Downs arrived at Ohio State for an official visit in June 2022, the five-star safety had already made similar trips to Georgia, Notre Dame and Alabama in preceding weeks. He'd heard pitches from some of the best head coaches and defensive minds in college football and knew that all of them were pining for his talents. Collectively, they believed that Downs, who is the son of former NFL running back Gary Downs, the nephew of former Pro Bowl cornerback Dre Bly and the younger brother of current Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Josh Downs, possessed rare ability.

In that regard, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day unequivocally agreed with his colleagues around the sport. Downs was rated the No. 6 overall prospect in the 2023 recruiting cycle and the No. 1 safety in the country after an incredible career at Mill Creek High School in Hoschton, Georgia, and the Buckeyes were equally covetous of his plug-and-play talent for defensive coordinator Jim Knowles' scheme.

But there was an aspect of Ohio State's presentation that differed from the other schools being considered, an enticing twist that resurfaced when Downs, who earned All-America honors at Alabama last season, entered the transfer portal in January following the unexpected retirement of head coach Nick Saban. When Downs and his family sat in Day's office two summers ago — a month before he eventually committed to the Crimson Tide — the Buckeyes' coach played a highlight reel of things Downs had done on offense at Mill Creek and then matched them with concepts from the Ohio State playbook. Day, it appeared, was already envisioning the possibility of a dual role.

"So literally, he's showing all these clips of Caleb lining up at running back, lining up in the slot on offense," Gary Downs told FOX Sports, "and saying, ‘We do similar things or we have similar packages, and there's a possibility of you doing those things in college.' Now that was prior to coming to college, prior to going to Alabama, and they were the only school that really brought it up."


As creative as Day's vision might have been, the pitch seemed destined to die on the cutting room floor when Downs ultimately chose Alabama. He became the first freshman to lead the Crimson Tide in tackles (107) since at least 1970, according to the program's sports information department, and he was named an All-American by Pro Football Focus, the Associated Press and The Sporting News, among others. Had Saban remained at Alabama, there would have been no reason for Downs to leave and no reason for Ohio State's two-way plan to resurface. But such is life in modern college football.

The idea that Downs, who joined the Buckeyes two days after entering the portal, could potentially moonlight on offense at Ohio State was injected into the news cycle by Day himself during a news conference last week. Day responded to a question about the depth of Ohio State's running back room by informing reporters that Downs was involved in tailback meetings and position drills throughout the spring — in addition to his primary role as a starting safety. Headlines were spawned almost immediately.

"We talked about it in the recruiting process the first time around and more specifically the second time around," Day said. "So he's been around a little bit, just to get a feel for it. We did very little in the spring. I think we pitched him an option or something like that in the spring just to get him going. But we'll see. We'll see where that goes. We don't have a specific plan right now. But we do want to introduce him to that."

Given Downs' pedigree and positional history, his incorporation at running back is an introduction in name only. Gary Downs, now 52, ran for more than 800 yards and nine touchdowns as a senior at NC State in 2003. He was selected in the third round (No. 95 overall) by the New York Giants the following spring and spent parts of his seven-year career with the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons, primarily on special teams. He later transitioned into coaching and passed both the wisdom and genes from his 6-foot, 212-pound frame onto his sons: Josh Downs, a third-round pick at wide receiver by the Colts in 2023, and Caleb Downs, a 6-foot, 203-pound standout at safety.

Literally and figuratively, Downs followed in his father's footsteps by getting into football as a running back when he was 6 years old, though he also spent time at linebacker. He scored 46 touchdowns in his first season of youth football in Gwinnett County, a suburb of Atlanta, and wowed the parents on either sideline with an array of jump cuts, spins and stiff-arms that were uncommon for his age group. His vision was so good, Gary Downs said, that he would pop free from the swarms of bodies near the line of scrimmage with nobody around him and nobody chasing him.

"It's like God just appointed him or anointed him with the ability to play football," Gary Downs said. "And particularly to play running back."

Downs quickly began absorbing everything his father was imparting on his older brother, who also played running back at the youth level. He would set up cones and dummies along the sideline of his brother's practices to mimic whichever drills he saw, especially the ones that simulated proper pad level and diving across the goal line for a score. He started picking his father's brain about running back-specific techniques and training. By the time he reached middle school — at which point Gary Downs was coaching running backs at East Tennessee State — he was grinding through daily tailback footwork drills sent over by his dad.

Everyone in the football community knew Downs as a tailback from the moment he started playing through his freshman season at Mill Creek. Even Downs' first scholarship offer, which came from then-Kent State head coach Sean Lewis the summer before he entered high school, was to play running back at the next level.

"I've been training with my dad and my brother since I was 4 or 5 years old," Downs told reporters in late January when asked about the intensity of offseason workouts at Ohio State. "I don't want to say I was built for this, but at the end of the day, I've been doing this since I was a kid."

It was Downs' desire to play varsity football immediately that ultimately prompted the shift from running back to safety, a move that swapped the veteran-laden depth chart of the former for an obvious vacancy at the latter. He prepared for the change by playing defensive back at a college camp the summer before enrolling at Mill Creek. Then he navigated that first season "off just great instincts and athleticism," Gary Downs said, and still finished with five interceptions.

Even as Downs settled into his position of the future — and garnered accolade after accolade along the way: sophomore All-America honors, junior All-America honors, Region 8-AAAAAAA Defensive Player of the Year — he continued to influence the game in all three phases as a safety, wildcat quarterback, wide receiver and return man on special teams. He reached the end zone on four runs, two receptions, two interception returns and one kickoff return during his junior season alone, topping things off with a touchdown pass for good measure. He ran for 334 yards and passed for 370 yards in an expanded offensive role his senior year and recorded five interceptions on defense.

"Most kids can't handle playing more than one position or can't handle playing offense and defense," Gary Downs said. "But even on defense [at Alabama], Caleb played safety (593 snaps) and nickel (268 snaps) and maybe even played some corner (28 snaps). So he did that before. He can handle it mentally and physically. Likewise, he can handle both ends playing offense. So as a kid, he's a football player, he's an athlete, you'd love for him to just have fun and help his team in any way he can."

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What that might look like at Ohio State is unclear given the one-two punch of TreVeyon Henderson and Ole Miss transfer Quinshon Judkins atop the running back depth chart. Should both players remain healthy throughout the 2024 season, it's unlikely Downs would contribute with any kind of regularity, a fact his father openly acknowledges. If anything, Gary Downs is envisioning one or two touches a game, and perhaps only late in the season to offer unsuspecting opponents an unscouted look.

But even that might be more than enough for Downs to tilt the field. He returned four punts for Alabama last season and transformed one of them into an 85-yard touchdown.

"Where it goes, I don't really know right now," Day said. "But I know he has the capability to [play running back]. He has the athleticism to do it. And we'll kind of see where it goes, see how he does."

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.


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