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Quacking the Roster: CB Transfer Nikko Reed

Film review of Reed’s 2022 season as a starting cornerback at Colorado before transferring to Oregon 

USC Trojans defeated the Colorado Buffaloes 55-17 during a NCAA football game.
Cornerback Nikko Reed #6 of the Colorado Buffaloes intercepts a pass intended for wide receiver Brenden Rice #2 of the USC Trojans
Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

Reed was recruited to Colorado in the 2021 cycle as a low 3-star (.8226) in the 24/7 composite by the Buffaloes’ CB coach at the time, Demetrice Martin. Reed burned his redshirt that year as one of the two primary backups to starters Christian Gonzalez and Mekhi Blackmon, with the other backup being a fellow true freshman low 3-star, Kaylin Moore.

In 2022, Martin was hired away by Oregon and Gonzalez transferred along with him, while Blackmon transferred to USC (both went on to be drafted), so Reed and Moore became Colorado’s starting corners as true sophomores. Last year was a disaster for the Buffs, of course, but it struck me when charting their games that their pass defense was much more effective than their rush defense – 13 percentage points higher defensive success rate on a per-play basis – and that opposing quarterbacks almost entirely attacked the middle of the field and stayed away from the corners. (I discussed the possibility that Colorado had an unappreciated bright spot at the position on the Quack-12 Podcast last November, starting at 1:03:54.)

With the staff turnover in 2023 along with almost the entire roster exiting the program, Reed and Moore have left Boulder for Oregon and Cal respectively, with three to play two remaining. Both were bumped up significantly as transfer values by the scouting services, which I think is merited based on reviewing the 2022 film and a few games of the all-22 that I recently acquired for this project.

Even though Martin was no longer coaching at Colorado in 2022, I noticed several similar patterns in terms of alignment to the sideline, press technique, and man vs zone preferences that carried over to his successor. The Buffs had about a 41/59 split between man and zone coverage during all meaningful snaps last year, which skewed about six or seven points more towards man than has been typical for this conference over the last 15 years – but I’ve seen the same thing at UW, UCLA, and Arizona during Martin’s time at those schools and the year immediately after he left them.

Reed’s film, especially once I got ahold of the all-22 for his games against UCLA, Oregon, and USC and their excellent QBs, was a treat to watch for his high degree of technical refinement for such a young player. I believe after completing this project that opposing offensive coordinators altered their gameplans in 2022 because of Reed, with otherwise favored receivers getting targeted far less often and certain downfield plays not showing up that week. Furthermore, the charts show that quarterbacks expressed a statistically significant bias regarding the side of the field Reed was on compared to CU’s other corners – on 65% of all designed downfield passing plays the Buffs faced outside of garbage time, the QB didn’t look to Reed’s half of the field at any point in his progression.

Of the remaining 35% of passing plays, the QB looked at the receiver Reed was covering (directly in man, or had him in his zone) and then came off due to good coverage 14% of the time, and threw sort of near Reed but not at his coverage responsibility on 8%. QBs challenged Reed but the result was an incompletion on another 8%, and finally challenged Reed and earned a completion on just 5% of downfield passing plays (and in my opinion, 2 points of that weren’t even really Reed’s fault but rather the structure of the defense). In my experience, these numbers are in line with high level cornerback play for a first-time starter, and in normal circumstances – though nothing with Colorado is normal – I would have expected Reed’s trajectory to approach elite territory as an upperclassman.

Reed’s main value is deep downfield coverage on outside receivers, and he graded out excellently in 2022. I have only a 3.1% “burned” rate for Reed on my tally sheet – that is, regardless of whether the throw actually targeted the receiver he was covering, did that receiver create enough separation on one-on-one coverage plays. Reed knows how to work the sideline and maintain the proper leverage against it, as well as undercut post routes to the inside when he has outside leverage.

Structurally, Colorado changed from playing almost entirely cover-2 prior to firing their DC in the middle of the season, to a lot of cover-3 and cover-6 with the interim DC. That meant working out different relationships with the safeties; mapping out exactly how exceeds the scope of this article but Reed consistently trusted them to do their jobs and maintained his sideline assignment. So while frequently late safeties left the Buffs vulnerable over the middle as a result, Reed himself never got beat by late breaks to the flag or caught out of position trying to help. Here’s a representative sample of Reed in deep field coverage:

(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to ¼ or ½ speed)

  1. :00 – Reed is in jersey #6, over the X-receiver on the bottom of the screen. Watch the QB’s helmet going through his progression (fellow film reviewer Chris Osgood shared the diagram of this play with me and insisted it’s one of Coach Kelly’s few with a full five-route read); he comes off Reed’s coverage as he maintains appropriate depth as well as leverage between sideline and safety, earning a checkdown.
  2. :14 – Man coverage of Arizona’s 6’4” high 4-star receiver Tetairoa McMillan, good spacing and contact, working him into a small receiving window – he knows the QB is going to put the ball high to take advantage of the receiver’s height, so he needs to get him within a few inches of the boundary and just shove him out of bounds mid-air … something Reed did to McMillan four times this game.
  3. :20 – Over the Z on the top of the screen here. Again, good contact without interference, working him to the sideline, with no room to catch the ball, even turns for it at the last second. Reed is showing an upperclassman level understanding of sideline spacing that the guys he’s covering don’t possess.
  4. :34 – The initial broadcast missed the snap for some Heisman hagiography, but the all-22 captured Reed picking off Caleb Williams second interception all season. Great timing undercutting this from the outside in, and excellent hands wrestling it from the receiver. No safety help on this one, the boundary safety as usual is out of position.

Athletically, Reed has great lower body fluidity and quick change of direction. That let him stick to receivers whom I was accustomed to seeing break stiffer DBs in coverage last season. Some examples:

  1. :00 – Reed is on the bottom of the screen over the Z. Count the moves here – an outside step at the line that then breaks in to a crosser, then he stops and reverses out to the flat, then Dorian Thompson-Robinson starts scrambling (on 3rd & 5, this is usually lethal) so now it’s the scramble drill and the receiver turns downfield. Reed’s got a hand on him the whole way, and the QB’s helmet shows that’s where he wants to throw but can’t.
  2. :21 – Again on the bottom, over Jacob Cowing this time. Watch that footwork, stutter into an outside step, pretty nasty, but Reed’s not fooled at all, just opens his hips a bit and keeps his weight even so he can flow back inside smoothly.
  3. :28 – Here Reed’s over Jeremiah Hunter, Cal’s leading receiver, on the top as the X. This is a rollout with a deep levels concept and Hunter’s the intermediate, and Reed can see it the whole way – he’s got his leverage perfect to control his man before he even makes his cut back out and he’s nowhere near where the ball lands, and with position downfield there’s no risk of an interference flag.
  4. :36 – Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison is the Z tight in to the formation with Reed on the line right over him. He presses contact the whole way, stuck pretty well prior to and during the reverse to the corner, which is enough to throw off the timing of the route. Addison breaks free at the end but it’s too late, the ball is in the air and off target – this was the best coverage of Addison I saw all year on this redzone concept outside of Utah’s Clark Phillips, a 4th round draft pick.

I think that Reed is tactically a smart player and knows at all times where the sideline is, and what its value is both as a defender and as the route to the endzone. This is difficult to quantify but I have plays all over my tally sheet where the common principle is that Reed is controlling sideline leverage, either to defend receivers or to deny ballcarriers access. Some examples:

  1. :00 – This is zone coverage and Reed is doing his job perfectly, despite the outcome of the play. He works the Z to the sideline (arguably the receiver steps out on his own and this should have been an illegal touching foul, but evidently the official thought Reed forced him), then maintains exactly the right relationship over the slot behind the LOS and the throwing lane to the outside. It’s crazy that the QB attempts this throw into this much coverage, and crazier that it’s completed.
  2. :23 – This isn’t Reed’s coverage responsibility, but he knows the route structure and the receiver has run out of space to the sideline. He falls off the X and collects the interception, fantastic body control (called back unfortunately on an unrelated HTF by a d-lineman).
  3. :38 – Not a great rep by either team or the officials, nobody’s setting the edge and the slot is getting away with a blatant hold. Watch Reed’s backpedal, he keeps outside leverage and always controls the sideline, forcing the ballcarrier back inside to the safety, and he gets off the X’s block to help.
  4. :49 – This looks like man by presnap leverage, and that’s what the play design is hoping for so that the corner rubs the safety and the Travis Dye can run to the pylon. But it’s disguised zone, something the Buffs used on about 22% of plays. Reed is over the Z on the bottom, his eyes are in the backfield and he closes off the outside running lane to the sideline to force a cut back into the pulling right guard and the arms of the linebacker.

What’s unusual about Reed in the history of corners that Martin has recruited and developed is that he’s not particularly big – just 5’10” and 185 lbs on his most recent official roster listing. I don’t see Reed beat in coverage often, but when he is, every time it’s been traceable to the size difference – he just can’t go up and knock down balls in trail coverage, or physically jam bigger receivers off their routes. The following examples are illustrative, not representative:

  1. :00 – This was the first and only time, early in the season, that I saw Reed really try to jam a bigger outside receiver in press coverage. We didn’t get a replay on the broadcast, strangely, but I’m fairly certain what happened was that the receiver knocked him back and used it to create that separation, because I’ve never seen Reed lose by that much ever since. It’s just physics.
  2. :07 – A perfectly thrown hole shot — which fortunately for the Buffs this isn’t, it’s too high and the receiver lands out of bounds — is very difficult for tall corners to defend. It’s impossible for Reed, and he knows it.
  3. :28 – The coverage on this one is excellent, and the catch is almost miraculous. I advanced this one frame by frame and I think Reed brushes his fingertip on the ball. If he had another inch of length this is a highlight reel breakup, instead it’s a highlight reel touchdown for Dorian Singer.
  4. :44 – Reed is over J. Michael Sturdivant as the No.3 receiver inside, who’s an excellent receiver and this is a heck of a matchup. This is exactly how corners are coached to cover this route, he just can’t reach and swat the ball that’s dropped perfectly onto the far shoulder like this.

The much more common way that I see Reed’s size affect how he plays is his tackling form – he very rarely wraps up, and almost always bends over and throws his shoulder at the ballcarrier, usually the ankles. There’s no greater shock in comparing tape between Oregon’s returning starter #11 CB Bridges, who’s a big corner with long levers and excellent tackling skills. Some examples of Reed’s approach:

  1. :00 – Reed’s on the bottom of the screen, zone by leverage, over the strongside to the boundary with the offense in 12-personnel. Reed dodges the TE’s downfield block, controls the sideline, then goes in for the QB on the keeper, lowering his shoulder.
  2. :08 – Bottom of the screen, disguised zone. The X goes inside to block the safety coming down, so Reed’s left to stop the play by himself. He does, folding himself over to put his shoulder on the back’s knee, though this ends up allowing an extra three yards.
  3. :15 – This was one of only two kinds of plays I’d see Reed use his arms to tackle — the other type will be below – where the catch is in the air and not near the sidelines, and he needs to drive the receiver backwards to prevent any yards after the catch. Good work not bailing too far and reversing quickly to make the quick tackle.
  4. :21 – This game went into garbage time quickly because none of the Buffs could tackle any of the Beavs’ running backs, this being a prime example.

The challenge in evaluating Reed’s film is that I only have a single season on a one-win team, with an interim DC for half the year and without the CB coach who’d clearly been his primary developer, and surrounded by what would be generously described as modest talent. One of the downsides is that some of the statistical evidence that paints Reed favorably may just be an artifact of how vulnerable the safeties and linebackers were, for example. But one of the upsides is that I got to see plenty of film of Reed acting as an ersatz safety – hustling to make the play after the rest of the defense had blown it. I liked most of what I saw out of Reed as a teammate in this sense:

  1. :00 – Singer puts in a half-hearted block that the safety easily gets by (he’ll fit right in at USC) on this wide RPO screen, but then that safety whiffs badly on Cowing in the backfield. But Reed has dodge McMillan’s block as the play develops and closes the deal.
  2. :08 – Reed is over the X on the top. Astonishingly, Colorado has called a c-1 blitz with nobody on the TE, and naturally the safety misses badly. Reed shouldn’t really have eyes for anyone but his man, but he comes off anyway, accelerates and makes the touchdown saving tackle … using his arms for a tackle around the legs from behind, good form.
  3. :25 – I watched the entire UO-CU all-22 with interest but there wasn’t a single useful coverage play for this project; Reed was on Dont’e Thornton all game and effectively had him locked up except for a garbage-time tunnel screen that wasn’t his coverage. That Oregon’s staff elected not to challenge Reed at all speaks highly of both, and throwing against the inside not outside was something I predicted last Fall’s preview so that was somewhat gratifying, though it didn’t help your faithful film reviewer select clips for this article. This was the only play Reed was remotely involved in, trying to chase down Kris Hutson and just clipping his ankle.
  4. :38 – Reed’s retreating to the deep field in zone as the structure calls for, then since the backer fails to get to his shallow zone to cover the crosser, he has to pick the correct angle and really book it to save the touchdown. It’s a lot of distance to cover but he nails it.