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Reed's smile means trouble for defenders

NEW ORLEANS -- Don't be fooled. And definitely don't get caught looking at his face.

That's the advice of LSU strong safety Norman LeJeune when he talks about covering Biletnikoff Award winning receiver Josh Reed.

"He can get you out of your game by smiling at you," said LeJeune, who battles Reed in practice. "He has this type of smile, it's a pretty smile."

Most defensive backs aren't smiling after dueling with the record-breaking receiver for 60 minutes. In fact, few teams have been able to stop Reed, who had the fifth highest single-season record in NCAA history for receiving yards.

But it's not his smile or trash-talking that has Illinois defensive coordinator Mike Cassity concerned heading into Tuesday's Nokia Sugar Bowl (ABC, 8:30 p.m. ET). Instead, Cassity's secondary is preparing for a wide receiver playing in a running back's body, and even more critical, a running back's mind.

"I've been coaching for about 26 years, and Josh Reed is probably as good a receiver as I've ever seen. Not only from the standpoint of getting behind people, but catching the ball in front of people and turning into a running back," Cassity said. "He is very impressive, and he plays fast, plays hard. All the things you talk about in coaching clich├ęs, he's all that."

Indeed, Reed goes back to his old roots as a running back once he gets the ball.

"Most of those guys (in the Big Ten) catch the ball and try to shake you," said Illinois' All-Big Ten cornerback Eugene Wilson. "This guy, he will lower his shoulder and try to run you over."

"I haven't seen any one person take him down on the initial hit," said Illinois linebacker Jerry Schumacher. "He is very talented and breaks tackles. He has good hands and speed."

Reed originally signed on with the Tigers as a running back out of Rayne High School, where he scored 52 touchdowns in his final two seasons. Before Reed, Rayne was most famous for being the Frog Capital of the World. Soon it could become known as the hometown of an LSU legend.

But if not for Josh Booty, Reed's career may not have flourished this soon. With a deep backfield limiting Reed's time during the 1999 season, Booty convinced then-coach Gerry DiNardo to try Reed out wide. Immediately, the redshirt freshman took off in his new position, playing the final three games at wideout, including a start against Houston when he caught five balls for 100 yards. Since the switch, he has caught at least one pass in all 26 games at receiver.

"You could tell he was a good, shifty player when he was a running back," said LSU quarterback Rohan Davey. "As soon as he was moved to receiver, it opened up a whole new can of worms."

Last year, he started every game and was All-SEC with 65 receptions for 1,127 yards and 10 TDs. This year, he dwarfed those numbers with 94 catches for 1,740 yards and 7 TDs. Against Alabama this year in Tuscaloosa, he ran over the Crimson Tide for 19 catches for 293 yards and a TD.

It leaves many wondering -- including Reed -- what would be if Booty never convinced DiNardo to make the switch.

"I can never come up with an answer," Reed said matter-of-factly.

Reed, who said he does not want to discuss his NFL future until after the game because it would be "cheating my teammates if I thought about my own endeavors," has excelled because of his running back background.

He is not blazingly fast, but he is able to make cuts better than many receivers.

"A lot of receivers get open, get separation. A normal receiver gets two, three yards separation once he breaks off his route. When Josh breaks his route off, he's five, seven yards separated from the defensive back. That makes it easier for me to get him the ball," Davey said. "Even if you're timing's off, the defender still has five yards to make up. No one comes out of double cuts faster than he does. He knows how to transfer his weight like no one that I have ever seen."

And although he is not tall (5-foot-11, 205 pounds), like the receivers that have become the preferred style this season, he uses his body to beat defensive backs once he gets the ball.

"One special aspect he has to his game is that after he catches the ball, he turns into a running back. He's a big, strong receiver," Wilson said.

But possibly the biggest thing that sticks out about Reed is that no coverage seems to have worked on him. Teams have tried to do everything they can to slow him down -- zone, double-coverage, man-to-man. Considering that only Ole Miss and Tennessee have held him under 100 receiving yards this year, it's easy to say that no one has come through.

"After a while, they don't pay attention. When that happens, I try to take advantage," Reed said. "Sometimes, I go out there, and it's zone coverage, then they only have one man. I like that."

If Illinois falls into a hole of playing man-to-man with Reed, the Illini may find out what the SEC learned this fall -- that he may not look like a big-time receiver, but Reed will quickly smile on his way to another big gain.

Mike Diegnan is an editor for ABC Sports Online. He can be reached at michael.diegnan@abc.com.