By R.L. Bynum

When you are a receiver with Josh Downs’ speed, there are moments during a game when you realize you can turn a routine play into a game-changing moment.

One of those moments came late in the third quarter Friday night at Virginia Tech, when Carolina quarterback Sam Howell threw a short pass to the left that Downs caught four yards behind the line of scrimmage. After a nice block by Joshua Ezeudu, that moment arrived.

“I caught the ball, and I saw a five-yard gap,” Downs said. “And, in my head, I just said ‘hit it.’ ”

After zipping between two Hokies defenders, the eyes of the 5–10¼, 180-pound sophomore wide receiver from Suwanee, Ga., got bigger.

“I mean, I just started running it,” he said of his 37-yard touchdown reception. “I saw green, and I saw the end zone. I said ‘ain’t nobody going to catch me from behind and I don’t see nobody in front of you, so the end zone is mine.’ And that’s pretty much what happened. I had to hit that other gear to get six.”

He didn’t get many chances to pull into overdrive last season, mostly stuck in park during the regular season. With dynamic receivers such as Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome around, Downs only had three catches for 28 yards and one touchdown during the regular season.

It started to shift during the Orange Bowl when he got around 20 snaps. In the loss to Texas A&M, Downs only had four catches but produced 91 yards and two touchdowns.

“The Orange Bowl was a big confidence booster,” Downs said. “Virginia Tech was me just really noticing that I can do it to the max.”

The Hokies noticed that as well, and that led to a lot more attention from their defense than when he was coming in for spot work last season. He says it’s all a product of prayer and preparation.

“It’s a lot bigger role,” Downs said. “The defense is really pointed me out on every single play, so that’s one thing that’s different. They’re looking for me everywhere I line up, but it’s also a role that I’ve prayed for and that I’ve really wanted. So, I’m glad I’ve stepped into that role that Dazz Newsome was in last year and I’m gonna keep working with it and keep going.”

During the 17–10 loss for the Tar Heels (0–1), he bettered his reception-yard total from all of last season (119) and equaled his regular-season touchdown total with nine catches for 132 yards and a touchdown. The 37 yards he gained on that scoring play were more than he collected in the entire 2020 regular season (28).

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He hopes to continue that momentum in the No. 24 Tar Heels’ home opener Saturday night at 7:30 (regional sports networks) against Georgia State (0–1).

Downs isn’t satisfied and saw during video sessions ways that he could get a lot better.

“I didn’t play up to the best of my ability by any means. I mean, the offense didn’t either,” Downs said. “I did some good things I can improve on and build off of. So, it helped me build some more confidence and get ready for Georgia State this week.”

Only the fact that Downs played around 65 snaps in Blacksburg surprised Howell. The junior quarterback knew that the talent was there.

“We knew Josh was going to play really well and he did,” Howell said. “He played a lot of reps, a lot more reps than we thought he would be able to. He’s one of our best playmakers.”

All the reps in practice with Howell are, of course, helpful. But Downs said that getting that chemistry during games was important.

“I wouldn’t say we needed it, but it was definitely good to have it,” Downs said. “I played minimal snaps live with Sam besides practice, so it was good for the first time to go out there and be with him on the field for pretty much every single play of the game. It was definitely a great experience to get one under the belt. We’re gonna build off of this. We’re going to come out and prove a lot in these next few weeks, so it’s gonna be good.”

Given how the game played out with few other receivers shaking loose of defenders, Downs’ effort was one of the bright spots in a frustrating game.

“Josh Downs? As advertised; played great,” Coach Mack Brown said. “I was really proud of him. He competed and made plays throughout the game and kept us in the game. Really, we’ve got to get him some help. Right now, people are just going to double team Josh and play man outside. So, we’ve got to have somebody else step up outside.”

Downs isn’t worried about the rest of UNC’s receiving corps and expects that he’ll be far from Howell’s only reliable target as the season progresses.

“We’ve definitely got to improve; we know that it’s no secret,” Downs said. “We’re going to improve every single day. Nobody’s hanging their heads. We have tremendous ability, tremendous potential in that [wide receiver] room. It’s going to show in these next few weeks. We’ve been balling out all fall camp. We balled out in the spring. So, it’s going to come to fruition.

“I think Friday was a good wake-up call for us,” Downs said. “We came in ranked 10th and I don’t know if we were feeling ourselves. We took a tough loss but I think we’re going to bounce back harder than anybody in the nation.”

How can Downs and the rest of the receivers improve on their opening-game performance?

“I would just say create a little more separation and routes, finish routes; do the technique we work on,” Downs said. “Catch every ball that’s catchable and continue catching the contested balls, and if I could catch a little more and get a little more yards after the catch. That’s one thing I need to work on, and I’ll keep doing that.”

Downs and all Tar Heels fans are eager for when he pulls down another catch and that moment arrives. Six points are likely soon to follow.  

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