Colts area scout Chad Henry nicknamed rookie wide receiver Josh Downs “Hiccup,” because he’s as quick as, well, a hiccup. Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter called him a potential “mismatch player,” because he can line up anywhere on the field and produce. Head coach Shane Steichen called him “savvy” because of his crisp route running and knowledge of defensive schemes.
Each of them hopes Downs’ career in Indianapolis is an extension of his record-setting days at North Carolina. If that is the case, the undersized, yet hard-nosed wideout could become the next great Colts pass catcher while playing a pivotal role in the development of rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson, the new face of the franchise.GO DEEPER'I'm ready': Josh Downs wasn't going to wait until Colts rookie minicamp to get going
The Athletic recently caught up with Downs, who was in Las Vegas for The Slideout Academy Football Camp earlier this month. The free youth camp, which featured 100 local kids between the ages of 10 and 14, was presented by Panini America. Downs co-founded the event alongside Seahawks rookie Jaxon Smith-Njigba, the Jets’ Garrett Wilson and San Francisco’s Deebo Samuel.
What made you want to start The Slideout Camp?
Me, Jax, Garrett, Deebo, we just wanted to get together and do something for the kids in the community and just teach a little bit. I feel it just had to be done because we have some knowledge that the kids should know, so we wanted to help them. I just want them to know that they can lean on me for real and that I’m just a normal person like them. I had the same dreams that they have when I was a kid their age and just telling them that they can do it. So yeah, I just want to help them get a little bit better with their game and teach them how to work and what it takes to be a pro.
— NFL (@NFL) July 13, 2023
Context: Downs’ father, Gary, is a former NFL running back who played for the Giants, Broncos and Falcons from 1994 to 2000. Growing up in Georgia, Josh Downs participated in the Kids and Pros camps that were founded by former Falcons players Buddy Curry and Bobby Butler. Downs’ dad was one of many ex-NFL players the campers interacted with face-to-face, and Downs believes meeting those players inspired him and his peers to chase their dreams. He wants kids today to have that same opportunity.
In addition to this camp, from what I understand, you’ve also had the opportunity to train with Smith-Njigba, Wilson and Samuel while in Las Vegas. How beneficial has it been to pick their brains?
I’ve already met them a few times, so just chopping it up with them about being a pro and what it takes. They’ve given me knowledge and just seeing them work on Instagram and then in person, you really see what levels they go to and how good of a player each guy really is. Just really confident dudes, really confident in their skills and knowing that they’re very talented. They’re guys that know the playbook well and are dedicated to the game. I would say those things are what really separates them.
Context: Smith-Njigba starred at Ohio State and was the first wide receiver picked in the 2023 NFL Draft (No. 20 to Seattle). Wilson is the reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and racked up 1,103 yards in 2022. Samuel is a former first-team All-Pro and scored 10 touchdowns, two receiving and eight rushing, last season as one of the most versatile players in the league. Downs’ 22 touchdown receptions and 2,483 receiving yards at North Carolina rank second and fourth all-time, respectively, in program history. It can’t hurt for the Colts rookie to train with other up-and-coming receivers and potentially steal a few of their moves and habits.
Since you’re back training, will you be 100% and fully available when training camp begins?
Yeah, I will.
Context: Downs clearly didn’t want to harp on anything negative, but to hear he’ll be back in action for training camp should warrant a sigh of relief from the Colts and their fans. He shined during the rookie minicamp, catching several passes across the middle from Richardson before a knee injury sidelined him during OTAs and veteran minicamp. Other pass catchers dealing with injuries to keep an eye on are Michael Pittman Jr. (hip), Jelani Woods (hamstring), Will Mallory (foot) and Drew Ogletree (ACL). All of them were out during the veteran minicamp.
You’ve talked about the edge you play with and the chip you have on your shoulder. Do you feel like those traits have intensified because you’ve been labeled as undersized throughout your career?
I’ve always been motivated to be great in the game, so yeah, just being a smaller guy, you gotta just do more. You always gotta prove yourself at each and every level, because people might not believe in you because you are small. Guys that are already “bigger” or have better size, they already get an upper hand because people are gonna assume they’re good until they show them they’re not. When you’re short and small, people might assume you’re not as good until you prove that you are. … It’s always been like that, but I’m just motivated to be good anyway. My sophomore year (of high school), I had a big year, and we were in the biggest (school) classification in Georgia, which is a really talented group, so from then on it was like, “OK, this is possible.”
— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) May 4, 2023
Context: Downs, who stands 5-foot-9 and weighs 171 pounds, attended North Gwinnett High School in Georgia and won the 2017 Class 7A state championship as a sophomore. He totaled 63 catches for 1,019 yards and nine touchdowns that year, and he followed that up with 1,914 yards and 23 TDs combined across his final two prep seasons. Downs was ranked as the No. 21 wide receiver in the country for the class of 2020, per 247Sports, and was likely headed to NC State, where his father played, before his uncle, former NFL cornerback Dre Bly, joined the North Carolina coaching staff.
How did your dad and uncle influence you as a player and man?
I’m very grateful for my dad. On the field, he was my coach (growing up). He’s still one of my trainers, and I work out with him when I go home. And then just as a dad, he’s just always been there for me. He’s my role model. He played in the league and has been very successful, so he set a great standard for me.
When I left my family to go to school, my uncle was there, and he became my closest family for three years. He would tell me things about the game, about how to get to the highest level, but also just things about how to be a man in life. I feel like my uncle was a big help, and then when I was young, he was still playing in the league, so seeing him play on Sundays was surreal because it’s like, “Dang, he was just out at the house with us, and now he’s playing on Sunday!”
Context: Gary Downs, formerly the running backs coach at FCS East Tennessee State, began training his son so early on that the younger Downs can’t remember when it exactly began. After rising to stardom in high school, Josh Downs believes he gained invaluable knowledge by continuing his development alongside his uncle at North Carolina. Bly, now the Lions cornerbacks coach, is a College Football Hall of Famer, Super Bowl champion (XXXIV with the Rams) and was a two-time Pro Bowler. Who better to learn how to get open from than a former lockdown corner?GO DEEPERColts 53-man roster projection: CB, TE depth chart in flux ahead of training camp
How would you describe the bond you have with your younger brother, Caleb, who will continue his career at Alabama this fall? Have you thought about playing with or against him in the NFL one day?
My brother has always been the best player on the field. Even though he’s younger, he’s always been the best player, so I’ve always been watching him like, “Dang, I need to get like that!” Just seeing my brother be very talented, a hard worker and a very humble dude is huge to me. I’ve taken that from him, as well. We’ve grown in our relationship, because you know when you’re siblings, you’re gonna argue and fight all of the time when you’re young, but then when you get older, you get a really good bond. I’m excited to see what he does this year.
Of course, we’ve talked about playing in the NFL together, but we also like to just be where our feet are. So, right now it’s still a shock to me that he’s playing at Alabama. He’s playing under Nick Saban. That’s still surreal to me, because Alabama was the top team growing up, and they’re still one of top the teams
Context: Caleb Downs was the No. 1 safety and No. 8 overall player in the country for the class of 2023, per 247Sports. He held scholarship offers from Georgia, Notre Dame, Ohio State and LSU, among several others, before choosing the Crimson Tide. The Athletic’s Alabama reporter Kennington Smith III projected in May that Caleb Downs “should be a starter who will have a big freshman campaign.”
Now that you’re in the NFL, if you could go back in time and give advice to 10-year-old Josh Downs, what would you say?
I would just tell him to keep believing and have fun but also know that if you want to be great, you gotta put in the work. I’d just tell him that and to always keep God first.
Context: Colts general manager Chris Ballard said Downs and his family had one of the best draft reactions he’s ever been a part of. The rookie cried tears of joy when Ballard called to select him with the No. 79 pick in the third round, while his family screamed in the background and thanked God. Downs declared that night that his new team was “getting the best receiver in the draft,” and after Colts legend and wide receivers coach Reggie Wayne vouched for him at the NFL Scouting Combine, Downs could be on his way to a memorable career in Indianapolis.
The Colts staff certainly was gushing after drafting Josh Downs
WR coach Reggie Wayne "I thought he was the best WR at the Combine"
NE area scout "the offense that coach Steichen is bringing in, he's a perfect fit. He's exactly what we needed: pic.twitter.com/KFNP7HL0RB
— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) May 11, 2023
(Photo: Zach Bolinger / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)