2022 AJC state player of the year: Mill Creek’s Caleb Downs

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Caleb Downs’ football team lost its only game Oct. 14. It came against Buford, ranked No. 1 at the time. For Mill Creek, the road loss probably wasn’t as close as the 39-27 score.

“After the game, (Caleb) came off the field, and I cornered him and asked, ‘What’s your take?’” Mill Creek coach Josh Lovelady said. “He and I talked privately outside the locker room. ‘You need to tell me from the inside out what we need to do and fix.’”

The team met Monday.

“(Caleb) was the alpha,” Lovelady said. “He said, ‘Here’s what was exposed. Here’s what we need to fix it.’ It was mostly mental things. We made too many penalties. We didn’t keep our composure. ‘We’re going to be fine,’ he said. ‘We’re going to make it a positive.’”

Mill Creek won its final eight games, all blowouts, and led by 30 or more points in each. The state title was the Gwinnett County school’s first.

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Downs, a safety/wide receiver who rarely leaves the field, is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s all-classification player of the year. Downs scored 41 career touchdowns as a four-year starter. They came rushing, receiving and returning interceptions and kicks. He threw two touchdown passes.

“He brings value in all three phases of the game,” Carrollton coach Joey King said. “He’s physical and extremely athletic as a safety. He’s a huge threat with the ball in his hands and also very dangerous as a returner. Definitely deserving of this honor.”

In Mill Creek’s 70-35 victory against Carrollton for the Class 7A title, Downs scored three touchdowns and made 10 solo tackles.

But what Lovelady wants people to know is the other stuff. He calls Downs “such a generational talent, and not just on the field.”

A member of the National Honor Society, Downs has a 3.9 GPA. On his last day of school this month, several teachers reached out to Lovelady to find his player for final pictures before Downs headed to Alabama as an early enrollee.

“This wasn’t because they’re football fans,” Lovelady said. “These are teachers that Caleb had an impact on, who love that kind of kid who’s a leader in the classroom, too.”

Downs has worked food drives, raised money for cancer research and led youth camps at his school.

During homecoming this season, Mill Creek defeated Central Gwinnett 58-7, and Lovelady was momentarily annoyed because so many players were still reveling on the field when they should have been heading to the locker room.

Then he realized it was because Downs and a couple of other players had rounded up Lovelady’s daughter, Reese, a Down syndrome child. Reese Lovelady had been crowned a homecoming princess that night, and Downs wanted her to have pictures with the players.

“When I realized that, I went from hot as anything to having sand in my eyes,” Lovelady said.

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Downs missed only two of Mill Creek’s summer workouts in four years, both for Monday college visits after being with his team all weekend. One was his Alabama official visit.

Downs led his team in film study all four seasons. An opposing coach once asked Lovelady after a game if Downs was stealing his team’s signs. “No, he just watches so much film that he memorizes plays and knows where to be,’’ Lovelady said.

Several Power 5-conference coaches told Lovelady that Downs was the most college-ready high school player they’d ever seen. “’I’m talking Power 5 guys, the ones you’re seeing play on New Year’s Eve,” Lovelady said. “They say he has more knowledge before he stepped on college field than some of their two-deep guys.”

Downs is Georgia’s consensus No. 1 recruit and the state’s ninth highest-rated prospect this century. His father, Gary, was an NFL running back. An uncle, Dre Bly, is a former Pro Bowl cornerback. His brother, Josh Downs, is a senior All-American wide receiver at North Carolina.

On the Monday after Mill Creek’s championship victory, Lovelady passed the torch to Downs. Alabama coach Nick Saban had arrived to congratulate the team and have dinner with Downs’ family.

“I said, ‘Coach Saban, this is a happy and sad moment for me. You’re getting a great one,’” Lovelady said. “He said, ‘I know. That’s why I’m standing here.’”

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