UTSA's Joshua Cephus and his positive outlook that led to another chance

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FRISCO – As a boy, Joshua Cephus was the soprano of his mother’s church choir. His two older brothers were altos and tenors, but his voice hadn’t dropped yet.

The Cephuses were a lower-class family who moved frequently. They shuffled from Greenspoint, Texas to Humble to Spring, where Joshua went to Dekaney High School. The praise team choir was the constant in his life. He cites his faith in God as the most important thing to him, over football.

Cephus doesn’t sing much anymore. But occasionally, Jeff Traylor would walk around the UTSA football facilities, belting a gospel tune trying to be funny. When Cephus would hear "Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art or The King is Coming", he couldn’t help echoing his head coach. He knows all the words. They carried him through a childhood full of moves where sometimes the water and lights would shut off.

“It all starts in the mind,” Cephus said. “Being an optimistic person and finding the best out of every situation kind of shaped me to be who I am today.”

Cephus has spent the week turning heads at practice ahead of the East-West Shrine Bowl, the start of a monthslong process to become the first UTSA wide receiver selected in the NFL Draft. He’s the program’s leading receiver after compiling 313 catches for 3,655 yards in a five-year run. This is why Cephus stayed in San Antonio when the transfer portal beckoned with Power Five NIL deals. An NFL selection is another way to etch his name into history, like the school records, the two Conference USA Championships and the program’s first bowl win in 2023.

The UTSA that Cephus is leaving isn’t the one he walked into. His hometown friends were curious when he chose in 2019 to play for a school that’d only had a football team for seven years and was coming off a 3–9 season. 

“Doing all those things we did, as far as the rings and getting the bowl game,” Cephus said. “I guess they see now why I chose to go there. To be a part of history.”

Making history matters to him. Along with the natural optimism and easy smile is the chip that stems from being the high school quarterback who wasn’t offered a chance to play quarterback. Rice extended his first scholarship, and Cephus fantasized about throwing touchdowns to his brother, Aaron, a wide receiver in the program, before realizing they wanted him to line up there, too.

His records are a testament to the power of optimism. Or, as Traylor puts it, talking to yourself and not listening to yourself. It’s how he entered a young program with low expectations, playing a position he didn’t intend, and left it setting himself up as a potential NFL Draft pick.

He took to wide receiver quickly. Traylor remembers his first game as UTSA’s head coach in 2020, a 51-48 double OT win over Texas State, where Cephus made the best diving one-handed catch he’s ever seen. He finished second on the team in receiving yards three seasons in a row, forming a three-headed monster with fellow wideouts Zahkari Franklin and De’Corian Clark. UTSA’s opponents couldn’t double-cover any of them and got burned by all of them. 

Despite standing 6-foot-3-inches, Cephus shifted inside to slot while Clark and Franklin manned the outside. As a former signal caller, he understood where to find empty space in the defense and didn’t get angry with quarterback Frank Harris when coverage dictated the ball go elsewhere.

By the end of the 2022 season, UTSA had won back-to-back conference titles. Cephus was at the highest moment in his life, the peak of his powers.

Then, his football career was almost ripped away.

In the early morning hours of December 9, Cephus rolled his car over trying to make a left turn near UTSA’s campus. Cephus admitted to responding officers that he’d been drinking and was sent to the Central Magistrate’s Office for a blood sample. UTSA suspended him for the Cure Bowl against Troy, and in July he was charged with a DWI for having a blood alcohol content of .183, over twice the legal limit. He pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 15 months probation.

The Cure Bowl was the first football game Cephus had ever missed in his life. He watched his teammates lose 18-12, screaming at the TV while watching the game at a friend’s house in San Antonio, heartbroken. He’d let his teammates and himself down. Cephus was a two-time champion, 15 yards away from breaking 1,000 in a season for the first time. He felt in control, and learned the hard way that he wasn’t.

“God definitely has a way of opening your eyes whenever you seem like you’re moving around with your eyes closed,” Cephus said.

He cites last spring as the lowest point in his life. Cephus was ashamed and embarrassed. He knew what he did was dangerous and couldn’t believe he’d done it. He retreated into himself, the smile he was known for now showing infrequently.

Spring practice at UTSA is the beginning of the audition for single-digit numbers, jerseys given out to the team leaders. Players start with a base number of points equivalent to their years in the program. Fifth-year seniors get five, seniors get four, and so on. The rest is based on a vote by coaches and the team. Cephus had worn the No. 2 the year before but needed to earn it again.

The team unanimously voted for him to wear the number 2 once more. Cephus didn’t want to accept it. He felt it was hypocritical. Traylor made him take it back. The coach wouldn’t allow his receiver to let one mistake define him.

After four seasons with Traylor, Cephus knows all his coach’s favorite sayings. Over and over during the 2023 offseason, Traylor would repeat one that he believes defines Cephus’s story. 

“When you get knocked down, you’ve got to get up, look up, and you never can give up,” Traylor said.

Cephus returned from the darkest day of his life to have his best season in 2023. He took on added responsibility as the de facto No. 1-wideout with Franklin’s transfer to Ole Miss and Clark sitting out the year with injury. Cephus lined up all over the field and caught 89 passes for 1,151 yards and 10 touchdowns. And more importantly, he didn't dodge accountability and owned his past. It was a critical mistake that could have cost him, or someone else, everything and he knows it was a moment that became a second chance.

“I know grown-ups who haven’t handled it as well as he did,” Traylor said. “He’s still a young man. He stood right in front of the cameras and he took all the questions. He’s taken all the shots.”

In late November, Cephus reached a pinnacle achievement, becoming the program’s all time leader in receiving yards in a 49–21 win over USF. And when asked about his emotions in this great moment, he instead reflected on that December morning. About how grateful he was to still play football and be a positive role model for his younger fans. 

“The mistakes that you make that the Devil intended for bad, God can always use them and turn them around to be good,” Cephus said.

Cephus can recite his favorite Jeff Traylor-ism verbatim. It’s a quote Traylor got from Mother Teresa, who got it from the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi. 

Your thoughts turn into your words. Your words turn into your actions. Your actions shape your character. Your character forms your habits. Your habits correct your destiny.

If Joshua Cephus hears his name called in the NFL Draft, it’ll be the latest example - along with the program records, the rings and the teammates impacted - of the power of his positive mindset.

"I'm going to miss him," Traylor said. "He was a blast. I knew he was going to be out there every single day going as hard as he could."

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