Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Caleb Downs transfers to Ohio State: Ex-Alabama star DB picks Buckeyes after Nick Saban’s retirement

Safety Caleb Downs — the No. 8 player in the Class of 2023 and No. 1 player in the transfer portal — has decided to transfer to Ohio State, after a standout freshman season at Alabama, his father, Gary Downs, told 247Sports. Caleb Downs entered the transfer portal after the Crimson Tide hired former Washington coach Kalen DeBoer to replace Nick Saban, who announced his retirement last week. 

It was believed that Georgia would be the favorite to land Downs given he’s a Peach State native; however, the SEC Freshman of the Year instead decided to join a Buckeyes team that has been loading up on talent and coaches this offseason. Downs had a tremendous freshman season as a key part of Alabama’s turnaround and eventual run to the College Football Playoff.

“Obviously we’re not starting from square one of recruiting,” his father told 247Sports when Downs entered the portal. “We know so many of these coaches already. We’ve been a lot of places. There are certain parameters of things he’s looking for.”

Though the portal had already closed for the winter, Saban’s retirement triggered a 30-day window for Alabama players to make themselves eligible. A number of standout Tide players have decided to make moves rather than play under DeBoer.

Rated a five-star prospect by 247Sports, Downs started in the season opener for Alabama and delivered on the hype he generated as a high school prospect. He finished the season with 107 tackles and two interceptions, earning CBS Sports Freshman of the Year honors along with All-SEC second team and SEC All-Freshman accolades. 

Downs’ coverage grade of 88.9 from Pro Football Focus registered as the best among all safeties in the SEC, and he was the first Alabama freshman in program history to lead the team in tackles. Downs also flashed his promise as a punt returner with an 85-yard return touchdown against Chattanooga on Nov. 18.

Recruiting win for Ohio State

From the moment Downs entered the transfer portal earlier this week, Georgia was viewed as the favorite to land the No. 1 overall transfer available and for good reason. Former Alabama cornerback coach Travaris Robinson just accepted a job with the Bulldogs to be their co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach, but nonetheless, the Buckeyes pulled off the recruiting upset. 

Another reason why Georgia was viewed as the favorite: Downs played for Mill Creek High School in Hoschton, Georgia, which is less than an hour’s drive from the Georgia campus in Athens. He considered the Bulldogs and Ohio State out of high school,  but ultimately elected to enroll at Alabama. Downs is Ohio State’s fifth transfer this cycle and he joins Ole Miss running back Quinshon Judkins, Alabama offensive lineman Seth McLaughlin, Ohio tight end Will Kacmarek and Kansas State quarterback Will Howard

Ohio State’s defense just got stronger

As a true freshman, Downs was one of the best players in the country at his position. He earned second-team All-American honors. Downs will now anchor an Ohio State secondary that has seen several key players return for another season.

The players who elected to run it back on defense include defensive linemen J.T. Tuimoloau, Jack Sawyer and Tyleik Williams. The secondary was one of the only holes to fill on the Ohio State roster and now they have arguably the top returning player at the position filling the void. On the other side of the ball, Day just hired former Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien for the same position at Ohio State. Day will give up his play-calling duties to O’Brien, signaling a philosophical shift within the program as the Buckeyes look to get back to the top of the Big Ten in 2024.

Impact on Alabama

Downs isn’t the only high-profile member of Alabama’s secondary that has left after Saban’s retirement. Former five-star cornerback Dezz Ricks transferred to Texas A&M, while CBs Trey Amos (Ole Miss) and Antonio Kite (Auburn) also left for SEC rivals, leaving Alabama’s 2024 secondary in flux as DeBoer gets his first-year staff in order.

DeBoer hired South Alabama coach Kane Wommack to be Alabama’s co-defensive coordinator after the two worked together at Indiana in 2019. Wommack posted a 22-16 record in three seasons with the Jaguars and just led the program to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history. Buffalo coach Maurice Linguist was hired as the other co-defensive coordinator, and he will also work with the secondary.

The duo gives the offensive-minded DeBoer a couple relatively splashy names on the defensive side of the ball. However, Linguist last worked in the SEC in 2019 as cornerbacks coach at Texas A&M, and Wommack hasn’t worked in the conference since he was a graduate assistant at Ole Miss in 2013. Thus, neither is likely to have prior relationships with current Crimson Tide players from the high school recruiting process.

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