Josh Downs is a competitor.
The North Carolina All-ACC wide receiver has a drive and work ethic that has elevated his play to the point where NFL scouts will be monitoring the junior this year for the 2023 NFL Draft. He has the genes – his father Gary had a six-year NFL career and his uncle Dre Bly was a North Carolina star and a Super Bowl winner during his 11 years in the NFL.
But it has been more than his football family that has him among the nation’s top pass-catchers. It's a competitiveness that shows up on and off the field.
"It's a one-on-one battle. It's really who's a better man," Downs told TSN about his matchups with defensive backs. "I work on my craft every day you work on your craft. So who's doing it better?
"I take pride in that. I don't like losing one rep in any practice. I work with (top UNC cornerback) Tony Grimes every day — I live with him and going against him, it's a battle. Every time he wins I'm frustrated, every time I win, he's frustrated so we definitely go at it. I take that real personal when it's one-on-one."
Opposing defenses found out just how personal Downs took his matchups last season. The 5'10'', 170-pounder finished the year with 101 receptions, 1,335 yards and eight touchdowns. He was one of only six receivers in the country to go over the century mark in receptions and one of 12 wideouts who went over 1300 yards. His 754 yards after the catch ranked third in the country amongst receivers.
The numbers speak for themselves. The highlights were remarkable, but it didn't just happen overnight. Downs has become known for his relentless work ethic. He's constantly in search of perfection and it's rubbed off on his UNC teammates.
"(Downs) is one dude, you know his battery never dies," senior running back British Brooks told TSN. "You can just see from his personality, walking in the room. He competes every day. I mean, the last time we were doing shuttles, he almost won like every rep. It's hard to keep up with him.
"One of my weak things is conditioning. Everybody hates conditioning. Just seeing him, just going crazy … this year was probably one of the years where I stepped up in conditioning — just because of him.”
Downs’ competitiveness doesn’t stop on the football field or the athletic facility. It extends to the links, too.
Downs' father and grandfather are huge golf fans. His father even gifted him a set of clubs. Downs hasn't been able to get out to play a full round of 18 much as he'd like, but he has been able to find time for the driving range. It's a place of solitude where he's able to compete – even if its only with himself.
"I love swinging the clubs," Downs said at ACC Kickoff in Charlotte. "Honestly, it's a great hobby and it's competitive in itself and I don't have to take any physical wear on my body."
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are at the top of Downs' list in terms of golfers he pays attention to the most. Their preparation and winning mentality are things that the junior receiver admires. Those qualities also show up in some of the athletes Downs follows in tennis. Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and the enigmatic Nick Kyrgios are a few of the names that the explosive receiver keeps up with on the tour.
As for the standouts in the NFL, Downs prepped for this season by watching tape of Odell Beckham and Deebo Samuel. Even some players who were peers last year like Commanders' rookie Jahan Dotson and Jets first-rounder Garrett Wilson made it onto Downs' watchlist. While all those receivers are worth learning from, Downs has found something in Seahawks slot man Tyler Lockett that speaks to him the most.
"I feel like my most similar (receiver) playing-wise is Tyler Lockett. I like watching him a lot," Downs said to TSN. "He's a really good receiver. I feel like seeing what they're doing to be successful and implementing it into my game, and how I could use it is very important because you don't know everything.
"Dudes are already at a higher level and they're doing it and they've been there. So watching them do it and seeing them do it, and then trying it myself on the field is very important."
Expectations for Downs to replicate what he did last season are high. He'll have to do it without quarterback Sam Howell, who's now hoping for an opportunity to toss passes in the NFL. Jacolby Criswell or Drake Maye will be UNC’s QB1 this season.
UNC's offensive line left a lot to be desired last season, and outside of Downs, the Heels lacked consistent playmakers to truly compete in the conference. There seem to be more questions than answers heading into the 2022 campaign.
How much more can Downs do to keep Carolina competitive?
The Tar Heels only managed six wins a season ago and while DraftKings has set their win total at 7.5, many are expecting the under.
Winning and proving UNC doubters wrong fuels Downs heading into the year. The combination of the two could potentially bring out the best in him and raise his pro stock.
"I don't know what's gonna happen these next five months, anything can happen,” he said. “So I'm not really just looking forward to going to the league, I'm just focused on this season. We have a big task at hand, we've got a lot of people to prove wrong and if we don't play up to our ability, and if I don't play up to my ability, none of this matters. So I feel like just playing these next five months is the main thing on my head."