Ricky Dobbs holds a special place in the recent history of Navy football. In the two seasons he started at quarterback, he led the Midshipmen in rushing and put up more than respectable numbers passing. He led the team to 10- and nine-win seasons. He helped Navy twice beat Notre Dame, as well as Missouri in a bowl game. He nearly beat Ohio State at "The Horseshoe."
As a result, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper have been hesitant to compare any of their team's quarterbacks since to Dobbs. Not that anything Kriss Proctor did last season as a senior or Trey Miller has done so far this year as a junior merited such high praise. The same can't be said for freshman Keenan Reynolds, and what he did Saturday.
Even Dobbs didn't lead Navy past Air Force on the road.
In a 28-21 overtime victory that erased the memories from what had been Navy's worst start in a decade, Reynolds came off the bench in the fourth quarter to replace an injured Miller and lead the Midshipmen on a pair of impressive scoring drives. With Miller still hobbled by a sprained left ankle, Reynolds could start Friday night for Navy (2-3) at Central Michigan (2-3).
Niumatalolo is still amazed at what Reynolds did to bring the Midshipmen back from a 21-13 deficit.
"I don't know if you can go into a more pressure-packed situation," Niumatalolo said after practice Monday in Annapolis. "We're down by eight on the road against our rival with six minutes left. It doesn't get more intense [than] that."
It was even more impressive than what Dobbs did in 2008 as a rarely used sophomore.
With senior quarterbacks Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada and Jarod Bryant injured, Dobbs came in early in a home game against Southern Methodist and led the Midshipmen to a 34-7 win by rushing for 224 yards and four touchdowns while not throwing a single pass in a game played in a deluge.
The next week, Dobbs relieved again and led Navy back from a 27-7 deficit against Temple at home to win 33-27 in overtime.
What Reynolds did — given the setting and the game's significance, with the first leg of the Commander in Chief's Trophy on the line — was remarkable.
"I don't remember a guy coming in like that before," Niumatalolo said. "Just taking in all the factors, all you can say is, 'Wow.' That was big-time."
Reynolds' statistics against Air Force (3-for-3 passing for 55 yards, three carries for 22 yards) were not nearly as impressive as what Dobbs did four years ago, and Reynolds needed sophomore guard Jake Zuzek to recover the quarterback's fumble in the end zone in overtime to help give Navy its first lead of the game. But Jasper said the poise Reynolds displayed was something coaches can't teach.
"Everybody was saying down on the field, in the huddle and on TV that he was as calm as he could be," said Jasper, a former quarterback at Hawaii. "It was good to see. The thing that I'm excited about, you never knew what you had until you put him in that situation. It's one thing to go in when it's mop-up time; [it's another] to go in when it counts and you've got to make a play."
There had been some debate about whether Reynolds would replace Miller last week when the first-year starter was struggling to hold on to the football, committing 10 turnovers through four games. But after benching Miller against Penn State and nearly doing the same in the first half against Virginia Military Institute, Niumatalolo stuck with Miller, who had 118 yards against Air Force before getting hurt.
Now comes a bit of quandary going into the game against the Chippewas, who have one of the worst rushing defenses (114th out of 120) in the Football Bowl Subdivision. If Miller, who first hurt his ankle in the season-opening loss to Notre Dame in Dublin, is not 100 percent by Friday, will Reynolds become the first Navy quarterback to start as a freshman since the triple-option was installed a decade ago?
"I thought Trey was playing decent until he got hurt; obviously Keenan did some phenomenal things," Niumatalolo said Monday. "I don't think we're really sure right now. If Trey can come back, I think he might be slightly ahead. But he's injured and Keenan did well. Right now it's up in the air."
Asked whether he is more comfortable running the fairly intricate offense than earlier in the season, Reynolds said: "There's a big difference from the first game against Notre Dame, but it's still a process. You've got to get better every week. It's not going to happen overnight. I've got to keep working, keep grinding. The work never stops. You can always get better. I'm definitely looking forward to getting better."
Reynolds said he has prepared the same all season, that after beating out sophomore John Hendrick for the job as Miller's backup in summer workouts, he goes into practice as if he's the starter "because I'm one play away." He also knows he could have been one play away — the fumble — from costing Navy a chance at its comeback victory.
"When I saw Jake fall on it I was happy, but for a minute my heart stopped," said Reynolds, whose earlier 15-yard touchdown run had helped tie the game with 6:35 left in regulation. "It was a big play, and I didn't want to be the one to let my brothers down."
Unlike nearly all his predecessors, Reynolds came to Navy straight out of high school and didn't spend a year at the prep school. It was likely a selling point when he chose the Midshipmen over Air Force.
Though one of the smallest quarterbacks used in the triple-option at 5 feet 9 and 170 pounds, Miller seems to be one of the most accurate passers (10-for-13 for 132 yards so far) Navy has recruited as well as being able to make the right reads in the offense.
"He's got some innate stuff. He's a smart kid," said Niumatalolo, who also played quarterback at Hawaii. "Some guys can take things from the meeting room to the field; some guys can't."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun