On one hand, the then-junior felt optimistic, buoyed by the confidence drawn from an impressive showing in the team’s final preseason scrimmage. But just a few feet away sat Downer’s source of doubt — Tuck Masker, a senior with a lively arm and a strong case for the starting quarterback position.
“You guys both fought long and hard this preseason,” Rowley began, “but at this point, we think Tuck gives us the best opportunity to win, so he’ll be our starter.”
For all Downer’s efforts to earn the opportunity, the sinking feeling in his heart made him realize there was one thing for which he was unprepared: rejection.
“This is what I had worked so hard for in the offseason, so it was really hard to have it taken away from me,” Downer recalled. “Looking back, though, that moment helped make me the player I am today, because I knew I had to make the most of my senior season.”
These days, as Oakton prepares to host L.C. Bird in Saturday’s Virginia AAA Division 6 semifinal, Downer has made good on his vow.
Displaying deft dual-threat ability, Downer has totaled 2,674 yards and 35 touchdowns to help the Cougars turn a four-game losing streak to end the regular season into their first Northern Region title since 2008.
“There’s no way we’d be in this position right now if it wasn’t for Kyle,” Oakton senior lineman Chris Durant said. “He has an ability to run and pass that you don’t see in many other players, and the way he makes plays makes all the difference for us.”
Rowley saw that athletic prowess in Downer last summer as he vied for the starting quarterback job. So instead of simply relegating Downer to backup duty, Rowley charged him with playing running back, tight end and slot receiver. Downer accepted his new role as a chance to be on the field, but as he struggled to learn the art of route running and blocking, he found himself longing for his natural position.
“I still loved playing the game, but sometimes during practice I would look over at the quarterbacks working and wish I could be over there,” Downer said. “It was a huge adjustment.”
Despite the steep learning curve, Downer found success. He scored 11 touchdowns with 582 total yards as an H-back and receiver. Meantime, Masker threw for 1,473 yards and 17 scores to lead the Cougars to an 8-3 record.
But even with Masker graduating and the starting quarterback spot seemingly his for the taking, Downer refused to take anything for granted.
“I knew the number one thing I needed to work on was my ability to throw,” Downer said. “So I really focused on my footwork, delivery and fundamentals. That drove my entire offseason.”
Downer’s improvement didn’t take long to surface, as he threw three touchdown passes in a Week 1 win against Madison. Since then, Downer has excelled in Oakton’s read-option offense, totaling at least 150 yards and one touchdown in every game.
“This team will go as far as Kyle Downer takes us, and his decision-making really sets him apart,” Rowley said. “He reads every play and makes the right decision, almost flawlessly, and that’s what separates him as a player.”
Downer credits his junior-year experience for his awareness and savvy under center.
Not only does Downer know where to find the open spots along the line and in coverage but Rowley has also been able to play him at safety, bringing an extra dimension to the defense that has proven vital during Oakton’s playoff run.
The Cougars will need Downer to deliver on both sides of the ball against L.C. Bird, which averages more than 31 points this season while giving up only seven.
But so far this postseason, the underdog role has suited Oakton just fine.
“Maybe if I had gotten the starting spot last year, maybe I wouldn’t have pushed myself as hard in the offseason and we wouldn’t be in the position that we are now,” Downer said. “Everything happens for a reason, and while it was tough to go through at the time, I’m satisfied with how it’s all turned out.”