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Secondary School Led by take-no-prisoners free safety Ed Reed, who leads the nation in interceptions, Miami boasts a defensive backfield second to none

Dec. 10, 2001
Dec. 10, 2001

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Dec. 10, 2001

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Secondary School Led by take-no-prisoners free safety Ed Reed, who leads the nation in interceptions, Miami boasts a defensive backfield second to none

With locker-room benches as his pulpit, Miami senior free safety
Ed Reed has delivered his share of emotional speeches this
season. However, it was in a 1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass that Ed's
father and namesake delivered a memorable message eight years
ago that has motivated his son throughout an extraordinary
career at Miami. "We were on our way to our house [in St. Rose,
La.], and my dad was talking about his work," recalls Ed Jr.,
whose 45-year-old father's hands are still stippled with burn
marks from 25 years of 12-hour shifts as a welder at a shipyard
outside New Orleans. "'Son,' he said, 'you don't want my job.'
He told me that if I worked hard at school and at football, I
had the ability to have all the opportunities he missed out on."

This is an article from the Dec. 10, 2001 issue Original Layout

Heeding that advice, Ed Jr. passed up a chance to become a
first-round choice in last spring's NFL draft to become the
first member of his family to graduate from college. Since then
he has become the leader of arguably the best defensive unit in
college football, cemented his status as an even higher
first-round pick in next spring's draft and played a major role
in putting top-ranked and unbeaten Miami in the Jan. 3 national
championship game. "This season has been great," says Reed,
who's on track to graduate with a degree in liberal arts in May.
"This is what I have been working so hard for, to help my
teammates and the coaches win a national championship. I have no
regrets."

The Hurricanes rank first in the nation in scoring defense (9.4
points per game), shutouts (3), interceptions (27) and turnovers
forced (45), and are second in pass defense (138.1 yards per
game). Reed's nine interceptions are the most in the country (he
has a school-record 21 for his career), and he's a finalist,
along with Texas's Quentin Jammer and Oklahoma's Roy Williams,
for the Jim Thorpe Award.

When attempting to explain Reed's preeminence among their
defensive backs, Miami coaches and players often begin with what
the 6-foot, 198-pound Reed is not. He's not the fastest member
of the starting secondary. (That would be junior Phil Buchanon,
a cornerback who runs the 40 in 4.2 seconds, compared with
Reed's 4.5.) He's not the most prolific tackler in that group.
(That would be senior strong safety James Lewis, who has 59
tackles to Reed's 44.) He's not the best leaper. (Senior
cornerback Mike Rumph has a 39 1/2-inch vertical jump to Reed's
37.) Rather, it's Reed's uncanny field sense that makes him "the
complete player," says defensive backs coach Mark Stoops. "He's
such a reliable safety that he inspires everyone in front of him
to play with confidence."

Having played the previous three years in Miami secondaries that
were ranked no higher than 70th in pass defense at the
conclusion of the regular season, Reed entered spring drills
determined to make the defensive backfield better as a whole. "I
started to challenge Mike, Phil, James and the rest of them,"
says Reed, who also added seven pounds of muscle through 5:30
a.m. weightlifting sessions over the summer, "and I expected
them to be critical right back."

Not long after defensive coordinator Randy Shannon mandated 10
push-ups from every player who dropped an interception in
practice, Reed took the challenge to the next level. After a
pass brushed his fingertips in an Oct. 25 game against West
Virginia, he started the next day's practice with a set of
self-imposed push-ups. Since then Miami defensive backs have
taken to pointing to the ground whenever a teammate is
beaten--or "juiced," as they call it--in practice. It's not
uncommon to see a defensive back reflexively drop and do 10
between snaps during a game.

"They're so easy to coach because they demand such a high level
of play from each other," says Stoops, who, along with Shannon,
in the preseason instituted a more flexible scheme for the
defensive backfield that better used Reed's nose for the ball.
"Ed's the nucleus, getting his teammates straight with subtle
little comments," says Stoops, who refuses to reveal the
particulars of the Hurricanes' new system. "When another
defensive player isn't getting something done, Ed will pull me
aside and say, 'I'll get it right, Coach.'"

In the Hurricanes' 65-7 mincing of Washington on Thanksgiving
weekend, Reed & Co. had a season-high six interceptions. Against
Virginia Tech last Saturday, Reed had two of the Hurricanes'
four interceptions in a 26-24 victory, the 27th straight game in
which Miami has had at least one pick. Defensive backs, however,
are not the only players feeding off Reed's energy. At halftime
of nearly every game this season, the guy known to some of his
teammates as Smooth has delivered a rousing speech.

The most impressive thing about Reed, says first-year coach
Larry Coker, is his ability to back up his inspirational words
with indelible plays. Following a lackadaisical first half
against Troy State on Nov. 6, in which Miami built a 17-7 lead,
Reed challenged his teammates to elevate their play. He then
sparked a 21-point third quarter by returning an interception 27
yards for a touchdown.

Midway through the next week's grudge match against Florida
State, which Miami led 21-13 at intermission, Reed made a
motivational prop out of the right shoulder he had dislocated
while breaking up a pass in the second quarter. "Stop asking me
if I'm hurt!" he hollered at his teammates, his eyes tearing up.
"Of course I'm hurt! I'm in pain! But I'm really hurt that we're
not taking care of business out there!" He proceeded to pick off
two passes in the second half of the 49-27 victory.

"He has the ability to change the complexion of a game with one
big play," says Stoops, a younger brother of Oklahoma coach Bob
Stoops. Consider the biggest play of Reed's senior season, on
Nov. 10: With Miami clinging to a 12-7 lead and :40 remaining,
unranked Boston College had the ball at the Hurricanes'
nine-yard line, first-and-goal. Eagles quarterback Brian St.
Pierre attempted a pass to Ryan Read, but the ball ricocheted
off Rumph's knee into the hands of 6'5", 252-pound Miami right
tackle Matt Walters. As he lumbered down the field, Walters
heard an urgent voice shouting, "Give it to me!" Walters looked
to see Reed coming up hard on his right, and with BC players
about to bring him down, Walters let Reed jerk the ball out of
his hands at the Miami 20. Reed sprinted 80 yards to a
touchdown, with a handful of Eagles in pursuit. After the game a
slightly sheepish Reed admitted that it had been a dangerous
play, but over the locker-room din Walters could be heard
bellowing, "Ed Reed for president!"

According to his father, Ed Jr. was challenging and motivating
teammates as long ago as his peewee league days. The elder Ed,
now a shipyard parts fitter who still resides in St. Rose (pop.
6,540) with his wife, Karen, and three of their five boys,
remembers when Ed Jr., his second oldest, was an 11-year-old
quarterback. "He'd gather the kids together and burst out
yelling," the father says. "He loved to win, and he always made
sure everyone was with him."

Ed Jr.'s older brother, Wendell, adds, "Ed always seemed a
little older, a little wiser than other kids his age. When he
got a pair of sneakers, all the kids in his pack went out and
bought that same pair of sneakers."

Reed's passion for athletics intensified during his freshman
season at Destrehan High in St. Rose, not long after that talk
in the car with his father. In four seasons with the Wildcats,
Reed lined up at defensive back, kick returner, running back and
quarterback, sometimes all in the same game, but it was as a
member of the secondary that he was electric. He had 83 tackles
and seven interceptions in his senior season and earned
all-state honors. Miami, though, was the only football power to
offer him a scholarship. (Curtis Johnson, the Hurricanes'
receivers coach, had heard about Reed through a friend, who
happened to be one of Reed's uncles.) Reed made an official
visit to Coral Gables in the winter of 1997--his first trip
outside Louisiana--and signed with Miami hours after stepping on
campus.

Reed missed the preseason drills before his freshman year
because of a sprained right ankle sustained in a pickup
basketball game, and he ended up redshirting. The following
season, with Miami still shackled by NCAA scholarship reductions
levied in 1995, secondary coach Chuck Pagano gave the
hardworking Reed a shot at becoming the first-string strong
safety. Reed earned the job, made 90 tackles and tied for the
team lead with two interceptions, but in the third game of his
sophomore season he had the most humbling experience of his
athletic career. With the Hurricanes ahead 23-20 and 1:41
remaining in a home game against underdog Penn State, Rumph,
then a true freshman, let Nittany Lions receiver Chafie Fields
get past him for a 79-yard game-winning touchdown reception.
Rumph and Reed, who failed to back up Rumph on the play, were
benched the next week. It would be the only game in Reed's four
years that he didn't start. "I was angry at first that I was
being made an example of," Reed says, "but the incident made me
work harder."

After making eight interceptions and 80 tackles and being named
a consensus All-America as a junior last year, Reed was
projected as a potential first-round NFL draft pick but decided
that a chance to earn his degree and a shot at the national
title was worth more than one year's salary, of perhaps as much
as $1.5 million. "Good Lord, my family could have used the
money," he says, "but I didn't want to leave without helping
Miami win a championship."

Wendell says he's never seen his brother so focused. "He reads
his Bible and plays football," says Wendell, who travels from
Louisiana to Hurricanes home games whenever he can. Ed Jr.'s
commitment has rubbed off on his teammates. For all the grief
that the defensive backs give one another, says Stoops, "the key
to their chemistry on the field is the devotion they show each
other when they're off of it."

When Rumph was sleepwalking through last spring's workouts, Reed
and substitute Markese Fitzgerald offered to help babysit the
cornerback's infant son, Jalen, so Rumph could catch up on his
rest. Whenever Markese's 12-year-old brother, Jae, who has
Down's syndrome, hangs out with the team, the defensive backs
shower him with attention. Before this year's game against
Syracuse, when the first-string defensive backs heard that an
ESPN commentator had called the Miami secondary the Fab Four,
Lewis expressed their dissatisfaction that the announcer hadn't
referred to the Hurricanes' Fab Six, out of respect for the
backups. To be sure, the secondary is as deep as it is good.
Fitzgerald has contributed two interceptions this season, and
the other key backup, Al Marshall, has made 26 tackles and
broken up two passes.

"Ed's like a father figure," says tackle Joaquin Gonzalez. "He
has the right thing to say in just about any situation." Yet
when asked recently to talk about the defensive backs he will
leave behind in January, Smooth choked a little on his words.

"I'm incredibly proud of how far we've come together," said Reed.
"These guys will always be like family to me."

COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN SMITH [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID BERGMAN Clamping down Fitzgerald and the Hurricanes held Virginia Tech to four completions last Saturday and picked off the same number of passes.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID BERGMAN First-rate Reed's two interceptions against the Hokies gave him nine for the season and a school-record 21 for his career.COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN SMITH Leader of the pack Taking their cue from Reed are fellow defensive backs (from left) Lewis, Buchanon, Rumph, Fitzgerald and Marshall.
"When another defensive player isn't getting something done, Ed
will pull me aside and say,'I'll get it right, Coach,'" says
Stoops.
"Good Lord, my family could have used the money," Reed says,
"but I didn't want to leave without helping Miami win a
championship."