Caleb Downs Ohio State Buckeyes

Closer Look: Is Caleb Downs Final Piece To Buckeyes’ Defensive Puzzle?

“Maybe Caleb Downs will enter the transfer portal.”

The thoughts started forming the moment the report came out that Alabama head coach Nick Saban was retiring.

One week later, Downs did just that. Two days after entering the portal, Downs was a Buckeye. He labeled the portal process as “recruiting on steroids.”

The reason for such anticipation and attention is because Downs (6-0 203) was one of the best defensive players in the nation last year as a true freshman free safety. He started every game at Alabama in 2023, leading the team with 107 tackles. His 70 solo tackles led all SEC players.

Along with his 107 tackles last year, Downs also posted 3.5 tackles for loss, four pass breakups, one fumble forced, and one punt return touchdown.

The Buckeyes came up short in Downs’ high school recruitment, finishing second to the Crimson Tide. Those initial relationships stayed strong enough to make Ohio State a logical home once Downs decided to transfer.

What To Like

The Ohio State secondary enters the 2024 season only having to replace one departed starter — free safety Josh Proctor. Proctor played OSU’s “Adjuster” safety position, which handles the wide side of the field, but also needs to be able to rotate over to defend a receiver in man-to-man coverage should one motion to his side of the field.

The first thing to like here is that this also describes what Caleb Downs did at Alabama. Which means the Buckeyes return four starting defensive backs from one of the nation’s best defenses last year — and who will likely all be in the NFL in 2025 — and then they added Downs to that as well.

Much of the time, the field safety/free safety/Adjuster is going to be the last line of defense in defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ scheme. He will be the deepest of the safeties. He is the last line of defense. When it comes to defending the running game, however, Downs can also be the first line of defense.

The clips below show his ability to trigger on the run, but also generally attack the ball under control. These are not highlights, simply the running plays that he was involved with in games against Texas, LSU, Mississippi State, and Texas A&M this past season.

Downs is a disciplined defender who reads plays exceptionally well — and it should be reiterated that he did all of this as a true freshman last season. He is not a finished product, but there are times when he sure plays like it.

The Potential

When Caleb Downs talked with the Ohio State beat last month, he mentioned last year’s games against Mississippi State and Texas A&M as being good games to look at to get an idea of who he is as a player. It is likely no coincidence that those are the two games in which he secured an interception. Those games were back-to-back weeks on the road. He finished with a career-high 13 tackles against the Bulldogs, then followed that up with 7 tackles against the Aggies.

As the free safety in Ohio State’s defense, Downs will have to cover a lot of ground from play to play. Nobody is going to play the position perfectly on every snap, but with instincts, athleticism, understanding, and ability, the number of perfect snaps won’t be insignificant.

The clip below is an interesting one because it shows the difficult positions that Downs is capable of handling. This play ends up being a completion, but Downs sees LSU receiver Malik Nabers run into his zone, and then Nabers makes another adjustment at just about the same time quarterback Jayden Daniels’ begins scrambling. It’s an impossible situation to stop — especially when it’s being executed by two future Top 10 picks in the 2024 NFL Draft. But Downs recovers and is right there with the delivery of the ball, stopping what could have been a much bigger gain. Yes, he was fortunate that the ball was underthrown, but this is just one example of what a defensive back has to deal with from play to play and team to team.

The ability to both read and recover increases the potential here greatly. Downs can read the play, which gives him an ability to combat the scheme, but he can also recover, which gives him the ability to combat the player. He is the double-edged sword.

The Expectations

As the last line of defense, Caleb Downs is also going to be defending the deep ball. He has the range to cover as much ground as is generally needed. His job will be to give his cornerbacks help down the field, but also to handle some very talented receivers in one-on-one situations. Texas got him deep with receiver Xavier Worthy last year, but every play has been a learning experience.

Some of the plays in these clips below won’t actually involve Downs because he will the deep safety and the quarterback will begin the windup to go deep but decide against it and check down. That’s a winning play for Downs because he is taking away the deep shot from the quarterback, which also creates more opportunities for the Ohio State defensive line to get to the quarterback.

Whether it’s as a zone defender, man defender, or triggering on screens or outlets, Downs is generally in the right place at the right time. He can do whatever you need a safety to do, and he does it under control.

Again, these are not “highlights,” simply the pass plays that involved Caleb Downs.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that Ohio State went into the portal and found the piece to the puzzle that they didn’t even realize they were missing. Downs will still have to win the job from talented rising sophomore Malik Hartford (who will also be a sizable part of this OSU defense), but if you can start as a true freshman at free safety for Nick Saban and signal in the calls to the rest of the secondary and be a First-Team Freshman All-American and a First-Team All-SEC selection, your odds are pretty good of starting anywhere as a sophomore.

Downs is a football player with elite instincts and discipline. He can blitz, cover, read, react, and even return punts. The only one of those things you shouldn’t expect at Ohio State, however, is the punt returning part. Sure, he had an 85-yard touchdown return against Chattanooga, but his other three returns last season netted just two total yards. His value is much greater to the defense than the return game.

One NFL source indicated that Caleb Downs would have been a late first or early second-round pick in this year’s NFL Draft. The NFL will have to wait, however, because Downs has a couple of years ahead of him making his mark in the Ohio State secondary first.

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