by Isaac Marr
The ball rockets off the foot of Duke kicker AJ Reed and tumbles end-over-end through the air into the arms of UVA’s Joe Reed, five yards from his own end zone. Reed glides through a trio of blocked defenders before juking two more at his own 25-yard line and racing up the left sideline. One final cut 10 yards from the endzone leaves a final defender spinning as Reed cruises across the goal line, untouched by all but one of the Blue Devils on the field. In 14 seconds, Reed has traveled 95 yards and widened his team’s lead to 27 points.

“My key to kick returns is just to go,” Reed said. “Not to think too much, just find one hole and hit it and see what happens.”

Watching Reed return kicks is watching a perfect combination of elite speed and an innate ability to evade defenders. Reed has used these skills to become the top kick returner in college football this season and one of the best of all time. He is averaging 35.4 yards on 21 returns, first among all players with at least 15 returns this year. He also is tied for first with two return touchdowns. He is just one of 19 players since 1976 with five or more career kickoff return touchdowns and is within two of the all-time record.

Reed has proven himself to be a dangerous weapon who will reliably burn teams brazen enough to kick to him.

Teams have been trying to avoid Reed on kickoffs, either with a shorter pooch kick or aiming at one of Reed’s return partners.

“Even if they don’t kick to me, that’s great field position,” Reed said. “It’s going to be a short kick, or they’ll kick it to (Tavares Kelly or Seneca Milledge) who’s just as good. I feel like I’ve done everything I could do returning kicks at this point, so if they want to kick away from me that’s fine.”

The opposition may be able to kick the ball away from Reed on special teams, but they have had trouble containing him on offense all year. Reed has 65 receptions this season, first on the team and more than his previous three seasons combined.

When asked about what is behind his breakout year, Reed has a quick response: “Offseason work,” Reed said. “I knew it was my year, I had to step up. The other guys were graduated and gone so it was huge for me this offseason to do extra work, get more catches on the jug machine, work with (Terrell) Jana and Hasise (Dubois). It really just came down to more focus and preparation.”

“Focus and preparation” are hallmarks under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, and Reed exemplifies the type of player upon which Mendenhall has built his program. Reed is an elite athlete with a strong work ethic and an unselfish personality.

Reed needed to use that work ethic to get to UVA. A three-star recruit from a high school with just 680 students, Reed became one of the first recruits of the Mendenhall era.

“UVA was my dream school,” Reed said. “I always said if they offered me, I was going to go there. That’s really what drove me to be here, living out a dream.”

Reed fulfilled his dream but was not content to just be a special teams player. Despite playing quarterback in high school, Reed wanted to excel as a receiver at Virginia.

“I was used to catching the snaps and just running so my first couple years it was kind of tough,” Reed said. “I was just working on techniques and fundamentals and reading defenses.”

That hard work has paid off and Reed’s rise has mirrored that of Virginia’s. He had four receptions in 2016 when the Cavaliers went 2-10 and is now the leading receiver on an ACC title contender.

When asked what has changed since his first year, Reed replies “It’s the mindset. There’s not one game that we play that we don’t expect to win. When we went 2-10 it wasn’t the same but now as soon as the ball is kicked off, we expect to dominate the game.”

Reed has one more game this season when Virginia plays in-state rival Virginia Tech to close out the regular season.

“At this point the game means everything to us,” Reed said. “It’s going to determine who goes to the ACC championship game from the Coastal side so from that standpoint it’s the most important game of the year. For me this is very personal. I haven’t beaten them before and there are a lot of Tech fans back home so to pull off this game would be the highlight of my career.”

Through years of hard work, Joe Reed has blossomed from a small-school quarterback into a top receiver and an all-time great return man. Long after Reed graduates this spring, fans will remember him as a player who was a threat to make a huge play every time he touched the ball.

As Reed describes what it’s like to hit that big hole and sprint into daylight, a smile spreads across his face.

“It’s a huge adrenaline rush,” Reed said. “At that moment, I do feel like I’m faster than everybody.”

Anyone who’s watched Joe Reed this year likely feels the same way.