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Saturday December 3rd

New teammates, same goal for UNC superstar Josh Downs ahead of 2022 season

UNC sophomore wide receiver Josh Downs (11) makes progress down the field during the Tar Heels' football game against the N.C. State Wolfpack at Carter Finley Stadium in Raleigh, NC, on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. UNC lost 34-30.
Buy Photos UNC sophomore wide receiver Josh Downs (11) makes progress down the field during the Tar Heels' football game against the N.C. State Wolfpack at Carter Finley Stadium in Raleigh, NC, on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. UNC lost 34-30.

For two years, UNC wide receiver Josh Downs has benefitted from veteran leadership and consistent quarterback play, molding him into a breakout star for the North Carolina football team.

But when the junior pass catcher lines up for North Carolina in the team’s season opener on Saturday, he will be entering a world of uncertainty. Not only will he have a new quarterback under center in redshirt first-year Drake Maye, but Downs will also be surrounded by a group of young and relatively unknown wide receivers.

Senior Antoine Green will spend the next six to 10 weeks on the sideline after suffering a preseason collarbone injury, leaving Downs to serve in a role unfamiliar to him — the most experienced leader in the receivers’ room.

According to Downs, though, nothing is changing at all.

“I don't feel much pressure,” Downs said of his role on the team. “I just go out there and make plays with the guys.”

Despite breaking out last year, Downs' mindset has remained the same. It was his uncanny work ethic that first propelled Downs to stardom, and he is using similar qualities to lead by example this fall.

“He’s an absolute warrior between the whistles,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. "If anything we have to restrain him a bit. He’s probably more in danger of overtraining or overdoing it during the week.”

When Downs first arrived in Chapel Hill in 2020, the first-year wide receiver had a well-constructed support system around him.

Joining a wide receiver room that included the likes of future pros Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown — and getting thrown to by emerging star quarterback Sam Howell — the former four-star prospect from Suwanee, Ga., seemed to have his success set up for him — looking toward those veteran players as examples of how to carry himself on the college level.

“It was a piece of information that I really needed coming into college,” Downs said.

However, the depth of receiving talent on the North Carolina football team’s roster also kept Downs from seeing many snaps in his first year. Over the nine regular season games that he appeared in, Downs tallied three receptions and one lone touchdown.

“We didn’t play him enough as a freshman,” head coach Mack Brown said. “He had Dazz Newsome in front of him, but we did a poor job as a staff because Dazz was so good and we were close in every game, we didn't have opportunities.”

That all changed when UNC was selected to play in the Orange Bowl against Texas A&M. Dyami Brown, looking ahead toward the upcoming NFL Draft, opted out of the game to avoid any risk of injury. Suddenly, Downs found himself starting in one of UNC’s most high-profile games in recent memory.

He didn’t let the opportunity go to waste. Downs tallied 91 yards and two touchdowns on four receptions, highlighted by a 75-yard catch that he took to the end zone. On national television, Downs had announced to the world that he had arrived.

Headed into the 2021 season, Downs was primed for a breakout campaign as the team’s newly minted first-option wide receiver. It was a bit of an awkward position for Downs, who knew he was one of the most talented players on the team, but didn’t feel like one of the locker room veterans he previously learned from.

“I wasn't as much of a vocal leader and role model just because I was young and I was just trying to figure things out,” Downs said. “Because I was still getting the hang of it myself.”

With Newsome and Brown gone, Downs looked to his quarterback as a mentor, stating that Howell's approach to the game ran through him and the rest of the Tar Heels. As a result, the two built a special bond on the field, leading to each of them breaking several school records in 2021. 

Howell finished his career as UNC's all-time passing touchdown and yardage leader, while Downs became the first UNC player to have over 100 receptions in a season while racking up a program-best 1,335 yards.

Throughout that season, Downs grew into the experienced veteran that younger wide receivers turned to. Among them was redshirt first-year Gavin Blackwell, who had known Downs since before the two were at UNC.

“He's probably one of the hardest working players not even in the receiver room, but probably on the team,” Blackwell said. “And that's definitely contagious.”

On Saturday, Blackwell will line up next to Downs as one of three starting wide receivers against Florida A&M. The former four-star prospect from Indian Trail, NC. has extremely limited game experience, but so did Downs once upon a time.

Downs recognizes that inexperience in the receivers' room, but says that it doesn’t bother him. Rather, he has embraced the young wideouts this preseason, remembering how he transformed from the unknown into a college football superstar.

Although the Tar Heels’ pass-heavy offense might feature plenty of new faces this season, Downs' goal remains the same. 

He’s here to catch passes and win football games, regardless of who’s sharing the field with him.

“This year, we definitely got big things in store for Josh,” Blackwell said. “Last year was just a wake-up.”

@LucasThomae

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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