Josh Downs is a competitor.
The North Carolina all-ACC wide receiver has a drive and work ethic that has taken his game to the point where NFL scouts will oversee the junior for the 2023 NFL Draft this year. He has the genes — his father, Gary, had a six-year NFL career behind him, and his uncle, Dre Bly, was a North Carolina star and Super Bowl winner during his 11 years in the NFL.
But it was more than his football family that made him one of the nation’s best pass catchers. It’s a competitiveness that shows on and off the field.
“It’s a one-on-one fight. It’s really about who’s the better man,” Downs told TSN of his encounters with defenders. “I work at my craft every day that you work at your craft. So who does it better?
“I’m proud of that. I don’t like losing a rep in any workout. I work with (top UNC cornerback) Tony Grimes every day — I live with him and go against him, it’s a fight. Every time he wins, I’m frustrated, every time I win he’s frustrated, so we’re definitely going to tackle it. I take that really personally when it’s one on one.
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Opposing defenses found out how personally Downs took his matchups last season. The 5’10”, 170-pounder finished the year with 101 receptions, 1,335 yards and eight touchdowns. He was one of only six receivers in the country to break the century mark in receptions and one of 12 wideouts to go for 1,300 yards. His 754 yards after the catch ranked third in the country among receivers.
The numbers speak for themselves. The highlights were remarkable, but it didn’t happen overnight. Downs has become known for his relentless work ethic. His constant quest for perfection rubs off on his UNC teammates.
“(Downs) is a guy, you know his battery never dies,” elder running back British Brooks told TSN. “You can just see it in his personality when you walk around the room. He shows up every day. I mean last time we did shuttles he almost won like every rep. It’s hard to keep up with him.
“One of my weaknesses is conditioning. Everyone hates conditioning. Just seeing him just going crazy…this year was probably one of those years that I committed to conditioning – just because of him.”
Downs competitiveness doesn’t stop at the soccer field or sports facility. It also extends to the links.
Downs father and grandfather are big golf fans. His father even gave him a set of racquets. Downs wasn’t able to play a full round of 16 as often as he would like, but he was able to find time for the driving range. It is a place of solitude where he can measure himself – if only against himself.
“I love to swing the racquet,” Downs said at the ACC Kickoff in Charlotte. “Honestly, it’s a great hobby and a competition in itself, and I don’t need to put any physical strain on my body.”
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Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson top Down’s list of the golfers he pays the most attention to. Your preparation and winning mentality are things the junior recipient admires. These qualities are also evident in some athletes that downs follow in tennis. Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and the enigmatic Nick Kyrgios are just some of the names the explosive receiver is keeping up with on the tour.
As for the standouts in the NFL, Downs prepared for this season by watching footage of Odell Beckham and Deebo Samuel. Even some players who were tied last year, like Commanders rookie Jahan Dotson and Jets first-rounder Garrett Wilson, made it onto Downs’ watchlist. While it’s worth learning from all of these receivers, Downs has found something in Seahawks slotman Tyler Lockett that speaks to him the most.
“I feel like Tyler Lockett is my closest (recipient) likeness. I love watching him,” Downs told TSN. “He’s a really good receiver. I want to see what they do to be successful and implement it in my game and how I could use it is very important because you don’t know everything.
“Dudes are already at a higher level and they are doing it and they have been there. So it’s very important to watch them do it and see how they do it and then try it on the field yourself.”
Expectations are high for Downs to repeat what he did last season. He’ll be without quarterback Sam Howell, who is now hoping for an opportunity to throw passes in the NFL. Jacolby Criswell or Drake Maye will be UNC’s QB1 this season.
UNC’s offensive line left a lot to be desired last season, and outside of downs, the Heels lacked consistent playmakers to really compete in the conference. There seem to be more questions than answers for the 2022 campaign.
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How much more can Downs do to keep Carolina competitive?
The Tar Heels only had six wins a season ago, and while DraftKings has put their win total at 7.5, many expect to fall short.
Victory and proof that UNC doubters wrong propels the Downs on their way into the year. The combination of the two could potentially bring out the best in him and increase his per share.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next five months, anything can happen,” he said. “So I’m not really looking forward to going into the league, I’m just focused on this season. We have a big task ahead of us, we have to prove a lot of people wrong and if we don’t fulfill our abilities and I don’t fulfill my abilities, none of that matters. Playing in the next five months is the main thing for me.”