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(Kristin M. Bradshaw/UGA Athletics)
Georgia senior safety J.R. Reed liked the idea of being a leader and spokesperson for the Bulldogs' defense better than being an NFL rookie in 2019.

Georgia safety J.R. Reed puts NFL dream on hold to pursue championship goals with Bulldogs

Chip Towers

ATHENS — It’s hard to know exactly how much goes into the decision to stay or leave when a college football player is contemplating entering the NFL draft. For some it’s a matter of filling out a little paperwork and waiting to see what comes back. For others, it’s a comprehensive study that entails numerous phone calls, meetings, detailed correspondences and thoughtful prayer.

Count Georgia’s J.R. Reed’s contemplation among the latter. His wasn’t a decision that was arrived at easily.

“It was probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve made, besides transferring out of the University of Tulsa,” said Reed, a fifth-year senior and two-year starter at safety for the Bulldogs. “It just took a lot of praying and marking things down and doing logistics and talking it over with my parents. After weeks and maybe a month going in – because we thought about it before – we decided it’d probably be best for me to come back.”

Reed certainly has plenty of good resources. His father, Jake Reed, was an NFL veteran who played 12 seasons at wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints. He retired in 2002 having played in 155 NFL games and finished his career with 6,999 yards receiving and 36 touchdowns.

So the Reed family was able to consult a number NFL executives in reaching their decision. J.R. said it ultimately came down to a good, old-fashioned list of pros and cons and, finally, a very frank conversation with Georgia coach Kirby Smart.

Reed and Smart agreed, “it’d be best for me to come back for this team and get us to win a championship.”

“It’s always been my goal since I came here to win a national championship,” said Reed, a 6-foot-1, 194-pound senior. “Coach Smart told me that’s what he wants this team to be; I told him I want to be a part of a championship team. So my goals haven’t really changed. That championship thing is always on your list, every time you play.”

If Georgia does win a championship in 2019, Reed will have had a lot to do with it. With cornerback Deandre Baker moving on to an NFL career, Reed is the undisputed captain and leader of what will be a young but talented secondary. And his experience factor at this point is through the roof.

Reed didn’t arrive at Georgia from his hometown of Frisco, Texas, until his sophomore year when he transferred in from Tulsa and had to sit out per the NCAA’s Division I transfer requirement. But ever since he reacquired his eligibility, Reed has been on the field for the Bulldogs. He has started every game at safety ever since, logging 145 tackles, 4 interceptions, 7 pass break-ups and 2.5 quarterback sacks.

Now he, rising junior Richard LeCounte and senior Tyrique McGhee combine to form a defensive back line that will rival any in the SEC.

That’s a good thing because the Bulldogs are going to be extremely young on the corners and throughout the rest of the depth chart in the secondary. Entering spring camp, sophomores Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes are the starting cornerbacks. Sophomores Otis Reese and Christopher Smith step in as backups at safety while Mark Webb, a relatively inexperienced junior, will look to step up at the nickel position.

Meanwhile, Georgia is welcoming in several other newcomers to the defensive backfield, including freshman early enrollees Lewis Cine and Tyrique Stevenson and junior college transfer D.J. Daniel.

Reed has been asked to keep a close eye on the newbies.

“A lot of the (DBs) haven’t really played that much, and I think they’re ready to show UGA and the world what they have,” Reed said. “Their talents are still developing. In the spring, I think we’ll find it.”

Count Smart and first-year defensive backs coach Charlton Warren among those most pleased that Reed decided to return. With all the youth in the back third of the defense, to have been breaking in a new safety would have been challenging.

But Smart said he never takes it upon himself to talk underclassmen out of turning pro. The Bulldogs had four juniors off last year’s 11-3 team make the decision to enter the draft in receivers Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley, running back Elijah Holyfield and tight end Isaac Nauta.

All four went through UGA’s Pro Day on Wednesday before representatives of all 32 NFL teams. Reed watched from a balcony in the Payne Indoor Athletic Facility.

Smart said he generally doesn’t try to talk underclassmen into or out of the draft. He just tries to supply as much information as possible and will give them his opinion if it’s asked for.

“We’re certainly very thrilled for the future of their careers,” Smart said of the early entries. “We’re looking forward to see how they do. … I’ve followed each one of them, communicated with each one of them, and we as a coaching staff and really organization are pulling really hard for those guys. The best thing that could happen for us is for each one of those guys to be drafted as high as possible, and for our program. We’re looking forward to having a hell of a draft because we have the potential to have a lot of guys drafted.”

This time next year, Reed will be among the Bulldogs getting tested for the draft. He plans to do so with another championship ring in his pocket.

“I have to take my role more seriously,” Reed said of his senior season. “It is a different role than I have had in the past. … Now, a lot of it comes on your shoulders. We just have to get everybody leaning in the same direction.”