LOS ANGELES – It was the third game of J.R. Reed’s young football career. He was still trying, unsuccessfully, to crack the starting lineup at Tulsa. He had no idea when he left the field that day he would one day have another shot at Oklahoma and Baker Mayfield.
It was September 2015, and Tulsa stayed close with the Sooners but ultimately fell, 52-38. Reed played off the bench and didn’t have any tackles that day. Mayfield threw for 487 yards and rushed for 87 more.
“He’s just an all-around ballplayer,” Reed said.
Two years later, they’re saying that about Reed, too.
It’s been an incredibly quick rise for Reed, who transferred to Georgia after that lone season, when he never started a game. But given a chance at Georgia, a level up in competition, he blossomed into a second-team All-SEC selection and a key member of a defense that will take on Mayfield and the Sooners in the Rose Bowl on Monday.
Reed was a favorite of Oklahoma-based media members on Friday, given his history in their state. He told them about his high school visit to Oklahoma, which was among the schools that didn’t offer him a scholarship. He told them that he still has friends at Tulsa, with whom he connects on FaceTime and called before he got on the plane to Los Angeles.
Did his Tulsa teammates think he was crazy to transfer to Georgia?
“They knew I had the talent,” Reed said. “A lot of those guys were shocked that I was going to leave, because just transferring is a big deal anywhere you’re at, but I don’t think anyone thought I was crazy. If they did, they never came out and told me.”
The feeling at Georgia, at least among cynical types, was Reed was just an inducement to land his highly recruited cousin, fellow defensive back Deangelo Gibbs. Why else give a scholarship to someone who had 5 tackles and couldn’t start for a Tulsa team that went 6-7?
But Mel Tucker, Georgia’s defensive coordinator and secondary coach, swears he saw a few things in Reed: good height and weight, speed, love of the game and football IQ. His pedigree didn’t hurt either: His father is former NFL receiver Jake Reed, and his uncle is former NFL safety Dale Carter.
Still, didn’t Georgia get a bit lucky that Reed was this good?
“Well you never know until the players hit the field actually, and you put the pads on and how they’re going to adjust. And he adjusted well,” Tucker said. “You’re just never quite sure how it’s going to turn out. But it turned out well for us.”
Reed says he was highly recruited in high school until he tore an ACL before his senior season, much like Aaron Davis, Georgia’s four-year starting defensive back who ended up having to walk on.
Reed attended a camp at Oklahoma his junior year of high school. Asked what he remembers about that, and he recalls the visuals.
“Oklahoma has nice facilities. It’s kind of flat out there. It’s really flat,” said Reed, who is from Plano, Texas. “It’s totally different from Texas. The coaches were great, I remember that. I had a great time.”
Initially, Reed was headed to SMU, before a change in coaches changed those plans. When Chad Morris was hired as SMU’s coach in 2015, Tulsa called.
That put Reed on the sideline for that game in Norman, Okla. It was the third Oklahoma start for Mayfield, who himself started his career at another program – from Austin, Texas, he first signed with Texas Tech – and had to prove himself at the bigger one. What was Reed’s takeaway seeing Mayfield the first time?
“Smart guy. Keeps the plays alive,” Reed said. “He can look you off. He’s an NFL-type quarterback.”
Three seasons later, however, Reed sees Mayfield taking a different approach.
“He likes to throw the ball a little bit more, honestly,” Reed said. “I feel like he wants to be in the pocket more and he’s more of a pocket passer. That’s why he doesn’t want to run it unless he really has to. I remember him running out a little bit more in 2015 than what he’s doing now.”
So on New Year’s Day it will be two kids from Texas squaring off in a national semifinal: Mayfield the key player on Oklahoma’s high-octane offense, and Reed an all-conference safety on Georgia’s stout defense.
“I know their offense is amazing,” Reed said. “We have a great defense. So we’ll see what happens on the first.”