Michigan State football’s 2022 could have embittered NFL prospect Jayden Reed. It didn’t.

Detroit Free Press

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EAST LANSING — After several bouts of adversity and misfortune, Jayden Reed pressed the reset button and set his sights on the NFL in December. But the former Michigan State football receiver could have bypassed all his recent trials and tribulations had he just gone pro a year earlier.

He may have avoided the fluke back injury he suffered last September, when he cut himself on a sideline bench so severely he was forced to miss the first college game of his career the following week. He certainly would have dodged the disappointment of a lost season, in which the Spartans stumbled to a 5-7 record after winning 11 games in 2021. He definitely wouldn’t have experienced the dip in production with a stat line that featured fewer receptions, yards and touchdowns. He may have even been able to enjoy the NFL combine without suffering a bizarre infection in his left eye that bothered him throughout the pre-draft showcase in Indianapolis earlier this month.

“If you play this game long enough, you’re gonna see different stuff,” Reed said. “I mean everything happens for a reason. That’s why I am here today.”

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Standing inside MSU’s indoor football facility Wednesday, the 5-foot-11, 187-pound Reed was the main attraction among a dozen former Spartans trying out at the program’s annual pro day. Scouts from around the league followed Reed outside to watch him field punts and gather more information on a rising prospect projected to be selected as early as Day 2 of April’s NFL draft. Reed had already wowed evaluators throughout an impressive week at the Senior Bowl, where he routinely toyed with defenders during individual drills. His speed, quickness and fluidity became immediately evident to those who had missed Reed’s evolution from an undervalued recruit who began his career at Western Michigan to one of the Big Ten’s most exciting skill players.

“He’s dynamic,” Jim Nagy, the Senior Bowl executive director, told the Free Press. “He’s a really hard cover. He’s one of the best route runners in the draft. He’s really crisp. And he’s a legit NFL punt returner.”

Nagy probably could have made the same assessment last year at this time. He grew enamored with Reed’s potential following his emergence as one of the stars of MSU’s rapid rise in 2021. That year, Reed demonstrated his tantalizing versatility. His average of 17.4 yards per catch ranked second in the Big Ten, and he was the only conference player to return multiple punts for a touchdown. Reed’s big plays and sudden strikes helped complement the steady output provided by running back Kenneth Walker III, setting the stage for the program’s remarkable turnaround in head coach Mel Tucker’s second season. After Walker declared for the NFL, Nagy figured Reed would, too. A Senior Bowl invitation awaited him. So did a possible headstart at both fame and fortune.

“But Mel got him to come back, which is great,” Nagy said.

As Reed contemplated his future, he eventually concluded that another year with the Spartans would benefit him. Last spring, one of the most prominent scouting services had rated him as a potential third or fourth-round pick.

“He is quick. He can separate. He has strength after the catch. He is tough,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said.

In the eyes of a league where passing has become all the rage, Reed was already intriguing. But given that he produced 1,026 receiving yards and scored 13 times in a breakout ’21 campaign, it seemed conceivable he could post even better numbers and improve his personal stock during one last fall in East Lansing. After all, his close friend, Payton Thorne, was still chucking him the ball, and there was a cast of emerging skill talent around him. As a central figure on an ascending team, Reed was optimistic about what could be in store.

“I wanted to win a Big Ten championship,” Reed said. “I wanted to compete with my guys for another year. And I obviously wanted to improve my stats. That didn’t happen.”

Not much of what Reed envisioned was, in fact, realized. Around the time Reed sliced his back in a Week 2 victory over Akron, everything had started to unravel. The Spartans would soon lose four consecutive games, knocking them out of the conference title race in early October. During that down period, the offense sputtered as Thorne’s performance declined and the ground attack shriveled. Opponents had also started to bracket Reed in coverage, which limited his targets and created more opportunities for budding wideout Keon Coleman. It’s no surprise then that Reed’s favorite memories of his career were compiled during his redshirt junior season two years ago, when he helped the Spartans beat Michigan in a top-10 clash, Penn State in the snow and Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl.

This past season, a fall filled with more losses than wins, didn’t evoke the same nostalgia. So, Reed made it a point to forget about it all and begin the next chapter in his life.

“I had to get it back in a different way, reestablish myself and prove what I can do on that level again, against the top of the top,” he said. “And I feel like I gave everything I had and showed myself.”

Reed shined at the Senior Bowl. He excelled at the NFL combine, where ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds, a time in the top half of the wide receiver field. It’s why Reed holds no regrets about this past year even though it was marked by pain and hardship that came after his decision to come back to MSU. That choice may have led to some delayed gratification. But it won’t be denied come draft time, as Reed knows.

“Anywhere my name gets called,” he said, “I’m gonna be excited and I’m gonna be grateful.”

Then again, he said, “You never know what’s gonna happen. … Stuff like that I can’t control.”

Reed’s past 12 months have confirmed as much.

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