ATHENS, Ga. — J.R. Reed plays for one of the nation's powerhouse programs, where the competition begins as soon as you step on campus.
Family time prepared him well for what it took to earn a starting job in Georgia's secondary.
"That's where I found the love and passion for sports, no matter what it is," Reed said, giving credit to his mother, father and sister. "I can be playing checkers around the house with my family. Everyone's going to compete, everyone's going to work hard. We can be playing Connect Four, we're going to compete at that. It doesn't matter how big or how small the game is, we're going to compete."
That's really not surprising.
His father, Jake Reed, played a dozen seasons in the NFL as a receiver for the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints. He retired in 2002 with 450 receptions, 6,999 yards and 36 touchdowns.
Now, his son is trying to keep other guys from catching the ball. J.R. Reed is one of the defensive leaders for the third-ranked Bulldogs, who face No. 7 Notre Dame on Saturday night in a game that could have ramifications all the way to the College Football Playoff.
Since transferring from Tulsa, Reed has started 32 consecutive games at safety, showing a nose for the football (four interceptions, two fumble returns for touchdowns) and a hard-hitting style that has made him one of the team's leading tacklers each of the past three seasons.
But the 6-foot-1, 194-pound native of Frisco, Texas, really shines in practice, in the meeting rooms and away from the field.
"A very good leader. Works very hard, extremely hard," tight end Eli Wolf said. "And super smart. He anticipates super well. A hard guy to get off of in coverage. I think he's a very integral part of the defense here."
Reed started at Tulsa, where he didn't make much of an impact in his freshman season (five tackles, one pass breakup). Then, in what seemed a bizarre twist given his lack of playing time at an American Athletic Conference school, he decided to transfer to Georgia after the 2015 season.
Kirby Smart had just arrived as coach. He immediately took notice of the obscure transfer who had to sit out a season before he was eligible to play in the mighty Southeastern Conference.
"You get the best of J.R. every day at practice," Smart said. "J.R. doesn't take a day off — and that was when he was not even eligible to play. I mean, he was a really hard worker, and that jumped out at you."
Turns out, Reed's timing was impeccable.
He claimed a starting job as a redshirt sophomore just as Georgia was returning to national prominence. Reed led the team with nine tackles along with two quarterback hurries in a breakthrough win at Notre Dame. He blocked a field goal against Samford. He scooped up a fumble and returned it for a TD against rival Florida. He made seven tackles in a thrilling Rose Bowl victory over Oklahoma.
Reed was selected to the All-SEC second team as the Bulldogs won their first conference title since 2005 and made it all the way to the national championship game, losing an overtime heartbreaker to Alabama.
For Reed, that 20-19 victory in South Bend two years ago was a landmark in Georgia's development as an elite program.
"It just showed that everyone started buying into the program," he said. "We saw what we can do if we buy in and all work together, and all work for a common goal. It showed everybody a new era, and that's Kirby Smart's era."
After passing on a chance to enter the NFL draft (he graduated a year ago with a degree in communication studies), Reed's leadership skills as a fifth-year senior are being put to good use in a secondary that is young and inexperienced on the corners. The Bulldogs will really be counting on Reed in their first real test of the season as Notre Dame visits Athens for the first time.
"He's grown into a very confident, good leader," Smart said. "He helps the other guys in the secondary and the other guys on defense know how to prepare for a game. I think in games like this he gives them some comfort to have a guy that's played in a lot of football games for us."
Reed will certainly be ready for the moment.
After all, he's already proved his mettle at Connect Four.
Chuba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State
The sophomore provided a glimpse of his potential late last year and now he's the focal point of the Cowboys' offense. Hubbard leads the nation in rushing at 173.67 yards per game, which includes an eight-carry day in a 56-14 blowout of FCS opponent McNeese State. When Oklahoma State has really needed the 207-pound Canadian, he has a pair of 200-yard games and six touchdowns. The Cowboys always seem to have a good tailback, but Hubbard might be the best of the Mike Gundy era.
Eno Benjamin, RB, Arizona State
The No. 24 Sun Devils are 3-0 in and in the rankings for the first time this season, but their star back is off to a slow start. Benjamin ranks 84th in the nation (69.7 yards per game) in rushing and is averaging 3.67 yards per carry. That's after leading the Pac-12 in rushing last season. As conference play begins, Arizona State needs to get the junior going.
ON THE LINE
(SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic, a former Auburn guard, breaks down an offensive lineman playing at an All-America level).
Logan Stenberg, OG, Kentucky
The 322-pound senior has been dominant early in the season.
"He plays through the whistle, often seeking out contact 15 to 20 yards down field. He is an aggressive run blocker who can keep that under control to also be a great pass protector as well." — Cubelic.
Georgia offensive tackles Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson vs. Notre Dame edge rushers Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem.
The best part of Notre Dame's defense is its multiple pass rushing ends. Okwara, a second-team preseason All-American, is the best of the bunch and there is depth behind the top two, with Daelin Hayes and Adetokunbo Ogundeji.
The 320-pound Thomas is one of the top tackles in the country, a future first-round NFL draft pick and a member of the preseason AP All-America team presented by Regions Bank. Wilson is also a former five-star recruit who has a chance to develop into a high draft pick. The 340-pound sophomore missed the last two games with an ankle injury, but he returned to practice Monday wearing a brace and the Bulldogs are hopeful he'll be able to go against the Fighting Irish.
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed to this report.