The vast majority of football players at Cerritos College are there for reasons they care not to admit.
Bad grades, criminal records, minimal talent … Frank Mazzotta has seen it all during his 38-year tenure as football coach at the California junior college.
But Mazzotta said D.J. Reed, now a sophomore Kansas State defensive back who played for him last season, doesn’t have a single one of those issues.
“He is just a really great kid, and he was something special at this level,” Mazzotta said in a phone interview. “He was a good student, a good guy, there wasn’t a reason he was in junior college like 90 percent of the kids we coach. He didn’t have any of those problems, he just got overlooked.”
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That much is now obvious.
Two years after exiting high school without a major-college scholarship offer, Reed has become a difference-maker on K-State’s defense. The starting corner has 16 tackles, six pass breakups and two interceptions in his first five games. He was at his best last week when he jumped a screen pass against Texas Tech for an interception and touchdown.
His coverage has helped the Wildcats to play more aggressively on defense than they have in previous years by blitzing linebackers, disguising coverage and occasionally pressing receivers at the line of scrimmage.
“Reed has adapted to the system quite well,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said. “He has had some difficulties, but he continues to make improvement, and I was really impressed with the interception that he made. It was how he read the scheme and broke on the ball, to make that quick decision. It shows that he is progressing.”
K-State needed an impact recruit to replace Morgan Burns at corner this year, and it found Reed. Many assumed defensive coordinator Tom Hayes would turn to Cedric Dozier, a graduate transfer with starting experience at California, to play opposite fellow corner Duke Shelley, but Reed proved too talented to leave on the sideline.
“He came in this summer just flying around,” Shelley said. “He was really energetic and really hyped. He played with a lot of enthusiasm, which I like. You could tell from Day 1 he was going to be a great player.”
Few saw the same potential in Reed when he was growing up in Bakersfield, Calif.
Back then, the few scholarship offers he had came from Division II schools, so he enrolled at nearby Fresno State and walked onto the football team.
While there, he decided to redshirt, bulk up and learn the Bulldogs’ system for a year. He was 17 at the time, and felt a year on the sideline would help him develop. It did, but he said coaches told him they viewed him as a contributor on special teams.
“I thought I was good enough to play corner there,” Reed said. “So I went to Cerritos and played on their defense for a year.”
It proved to be an ideal transfer. Weeks after earning a starting spot, Reed received an offer from Indiana State, then K-State and many other power-conference teams. Most junior-college players wait two years to transfer to a four-year college, but Reed’s combination of talent and grades, made him a first-year recruiting target.
He is now excelling early for the Wildcats.
But it hasn’t all been perfect.
A week before flexing his muscles against Texas Tech, he was humbled by West Virginia receiver Shelton Gibson. Every time the Mountaineers went deep, they picked on Reed and burned him three times for 104 yards. On one deep ball, which went for a 52-yard gain, Reed couldn’t keep pace with Gibson’s shadow.
Reed, normally a staple at postgame news conferences, rejected interview requests afterward. He was too humiliated to talk.
“I didn’t watch any film and I was really disappointed in myself,” Reed says now. “My head got big when we were playing those first three teams. I was locking receivers down, so my head got big and I didn’t know what I was getting into. I didn’t prepare for (Gibson) like I should have, and he came out with juice. I went into that game blinded.”
One key to being a successful corner is to quickly put mistakes like that behind you. Or, as many say on the football field, have a short memory.
Reed reminded himself of that mantra following the West Virginia game and watched five hours of video on Texas Tech’s receivers. No way was he going to let them surprise him.
Then the game started and he saw things that looked familiar. Before his interception, he sensed a screen pass was coming and raced toward the intended receiver before the ball was thrown.
He made similar plays in practice at Fresno State and in games at Cerritos. But his first touchdown at K-State far surpassed those. For the first time, a large audience noticed.
“None of us are surprised by his success,” Mazzotta said. “I knew he had a chance to blossom in junior college and then go play somewhere big. If we still had him, he would be good enough to play defense, return punts and probably start on offense. He was special for us, and it looks like he is going to be special for Kansas State.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett