Caleb Downs

Ohio State Football Notebook: ‘As a freshman to be able to do that, it’s really impressive’

Big Spring Ahead

Spring practice is eight days away for the Ohio State football team. Spring camp is a time for personal growth over the course of 15 practices. Mistakes are made and then fixed, and through it all there are already competitions taking place for all kinds of starting jobs and other important roles.

One of those starting spots is the right guard position, which could take a number of different paths. However the right side of the offensive line shakes out, two of the most prominent names being mentioned are redshirt sophomore Tegra Tshabola and true sophomore Luke Montgomery.

Both were valuable reserves last year who could be looking to move into the starting lineup this spring.

“Big Spring. Yeah, huge, huge spring for both of those guys,” Buckeye head coach Ryan Day said earlier this month. “And that’s not the only guys, I mean, there’s a bunch of other guys in that room. This is a huge spring for them. And even the guys who came in the summer, and I think about [quarterback] Lincoln [Kienholz]. I think about [linebacker] Arvell [Reese]. I think about some of these guys that haven’t had a whole spring to really go to work on. So I’m excited.”

Even though spring camp is just 15 practices, it will carry plenty of weight with coaches. More importantly, it just adds to the needed experience to make more of an impact in fall camp.

“The more reps those guys get, just like the quarterbacks need, the better, and we’ll have a better idea of it,” Day said. “But having mat drills, having some of the workouts and the runs, and all those things will allow them the opportunity to have a year of experience under their belt. Physically they are where they need to be, mentally they will be where they need to be learning the offense and defense. I’m hoping this is the most competitive spring we’ve had since since I’ve been here. But we’ll see.”

Center Of Change

It’s not often that a two-year starter transfers from one major program to another, but it is becoming more and more common. One instance of this is at Ohio State, where former Alabama center Seth McLaughlin is now roaming the halls.

McLaughlin started in 22 games over the past two years for the Crimson Tide, including all 14 games this past season. He entered the transfer portal following the season, and when asked why he left, he talked about his ability to handle change.

“I think, personally, I’ve always thrived off of change,” he said. “I played for three different offensive coordinators. I played for three offensive line coaches, two strength staffs. And I thought at this point in my career Alabama had done a great job of developing me from the 265-pound kid into the 300-pound center that I was. But I thought for my fifth year, I could do something different and go to a program, learn from new people, be in a new strength staff, and really progress my development further.”

There has been a bit of a pipeline developing between Ohio State and Alabama. The Buckeyes are seemingly cashing in on the “Player To Be Named Later” in the Jameson Williams “trade” from a few years back.

McLaughlin was the first Tide player to transfer to Ohio State. Then came Freshman All-American safety Caleb Downs, followed by incoming five-star freshman quarterback Julian Sayin. The latest move being the hiring of Alabama director of player personnel Sam Petitto for the same position at Ohio State where he will be the right-hand man to General Manager Mark Pantoni.

But back to McLaughlin — why did he choose Ohio State?

“Ohio State’s one of the greatest programs in college football,” he said. “And coming from a place like Alabama, I thought I wanted to go to another similar place that is always competing to win championships and has great coaching and great development.”

McLaughlin’s last game out was a playoff loss to Michigan and it featured some bad snaps that plagued him at times this past season.

The snaps were a topic of conversation when McLaughlin met with the media at Ohio State for the first time recently. He assured people that this has not been a long-term issue and it is being addressed.

“Of course,” he said. “The first major part of a football play is getting the ball to the quarterback and it doesn’t matter if you can block anybody if you can’t get the ball back to the quarterback and start the play. So we definitely have a plan on that moving forward.”

Child’s Play

It’s not every year that a freshman defender has started for Nick Saban and gone on to lead the team in tackles like Caleb Downs did last year as a freshman. Even though it was incredibly rare, Downs just saw it as something he had been preparing for since he was much younger.

“I think the development from when I was a kid,” when asked how he was able to manage so much at Alabama so quickly. “I’ve been training with my dad and my brother since I was four or five years old, so 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 so there’s really been no change.”

Downs also credits his early successes to his love of simply playing defense.

“I feel like it’s being a part of a bunch of moving parts that have to work together,” he said. “The offense has to do their own thing, but the defense, everybody has their own responsibility. And when everybody can do their own responsibility, everybody’s gonna make plays, and everybody’s gonna be able to succeed. So I just feel like being a part of that and trying to help myself and help my team be better in terms of that. So that’s a big thing for me.”

Downs led Alabama with 107 tackles last year, frequently flashing into the backfield to help out in run support. He now brings his safety talents to Ohio State where he will be counted on to be the last line of defense for the Buckeyes. It’s what he did last year at Alabama, so the fit in this year’s OSU secondary should be just about perfect.

Though when you hear him describe himself as a player, it’s clear that he would be a fit in anybody’s secondary.

“Instinctual player,” he said of himself. “Very athletic. Being able to make plays all over the field. Being able to see plays before they happen.”

The Complete Player

New Ohio State safeties coach Matt Guerrieri was one of the many OSU coaches involved in recruiting Caleb Downs both in the portal and as a high school prospect. It was apparent to almost everybody that Downs was going to be a special player in college.

In Downs, Guerrieri saw somebody who can do whatever a coach wants, both on the field and in the film room.

“I think when you look at safeties, it’s how fast can guys react?” Guerrieri explained. “There’s two ways you do that. One is mentally. You guys have met with him already and you see how sharp he is. The way he can answer questions, articulate them, and he’s really special from a mental standpoint. And then how fast you can react physically?

“If you watch him in agility drills, his body, the functional movement skills, are tremendous. So if you have a guy that can respond quickly from a mental and a physical standpoint, I think you’re a step up on guys from that standpoint. Not only does he have great physical tools, but he can use those in a really efficient way.”

But it takes more than the physical tools to be able to make an impact, especially as a true freshman. For Guerrieri, that is what really separated Downs from the typical rookie a year ago.

“I think, from an early standpoint, if you said, ‘Okay, what’s the most important thing for a young player coming into a program like Ohio State to be able to contribute?’ It’s what’s between the ears; it’s the mentality. It’s the way that they can process the game,” he said. “So that’s our job as coaches to take the physical skills and be able to get them to that point. But as a freshman to be able to do that, it’s really impressive.”

[Caleb Downs header photo courtesy of the Alabama Dept. of Athletics.]

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