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."
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 tackier 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�-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.