SAN ANTONIO - When the U.S. Army All-American Bowl kicked off on Saturday, Willie Downs still had a bad taste left in his mouth from the last football game he had played. His Tallahassee (Fla.) Godby team made it to the state finals his senior year in what was supposed to be the perfect ending to a dream season.
"That was the biggest game I had ever played in," Downs said. "We lost it by one. I felt like I had to do my part today and show everyone what I'm all about."
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And he did just that.
With the game scoreless late in the first quarter and neither team willing to give up a big play, the East defense, specifically Downs, made a gamebreaking play.
Defensive end Donte Moss found a way to get around the Rivals.com ranked No. 1 offensive tackle in the country, D.J. Fluker. The 6-foot-5, 235-pounder laid all of his weight into West quarterback AJ McCarron as the Alabama commit released the ball. The impact caused the pass to be under thrown.
"I just came up and saw the quarterback looking my way," Downs said. "I jumped in front of the route receiver."
"He did the right thing," West defensive back coach Sean Callahan added. "He had underneath coverage and he was underneath the receiver. If the ball is ever near his hands, he's going to catch it. Everybody was on that side of the field. I didn't need to tell him where to go. He did the right thing there."
Making the interception on the left side of the field, Downs began running to the opposite sideline.
"Off the bat, I knew I was going that way," Downs said. "From the time it hit my hands, I was feeling the end zone. I knew from the get-go that I was going to take it to the end zone. I knew I was going to take it all the way."
That's exactly what he did as he ran around his blocks and crossed the goal line, celebrating his six-point play by chucking the ball into the stands.
"Willie's a great player and it was a beautiful pick," East defensive tackle John Simon said. "He looked beautiful taking it to the house. There was great blocking by the defense and that swung the momentum in our favor early on."
Downs' play was one example of the East's relentless defensive pressure on Saturday.
"I went to the sidelines and everyone was feeling it," Downs said. "After that, I told them, 'Lets go! We're going to win this game!'"
Downs is set to sign with Florida State and is currently being projected as a receiver for the Seminoles.
"At Florida State, they need to think about putting him in the secondary," Callahan said. "At that spot, he makes plays almost every time. As a wide receiver, he can't make plays like he can on defense. He's so natural. He's my MVP."
Looking at the lineup before the first East team practice, Callahan glanced at the roster and liked what he saw in Downs.
"We had a need for a bigger body to play strong safety and he was so open to it. He said, 'Hey coach, I'll do whatever you want.' That was pretty impressive and he did.
"It was the best thing that I ever did with one guy. He was a sponge and picked up everything."
Downs, who played both ways in high school, has definitely given Florida State something to think about.
On Saturday, the 6-foot-2, 192-pound receiver was also able to make up for the disappointing end to his senior year. His performance in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl is something he will take with him for the rest of his life.
"They had good competition here today," said Downs. "I just knew I had to bring my A-game and I did."