As Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper broke down film from the team's 2012 season, they noticed that the Midshipmen didn't look out of sync when freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds took the snap out of a shotgun formation.
According to Jasper, it happened on "about 15" plays that he and Niumatalolo reviewed. Not only did the formation often catch the opposition by surprise, but Reynolds appeared even more comfortable than he did at times running Navy's trademark triple-option.
"When we did [run out of a shotgun], it was great," Jasper, who also serves as the team's quarterbacks coach, recalled in an interview last week. "It was almost to the point when we were watching film, Coach Niumat was like, 'Why didn't we do more of this?'"
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Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, 550 Taylor Avenue, Annapolis, MD 21401, USA
When Navy opens spring practice Monday in Annapolis, Reynolds and the Midshipmen are, according to Jasper, "starting in an entirely different place" than they were a year ago. And so might the offense Navy takes into the 2013 season.
Reynolds has gone from being a talented recruit who spent his last spring break in high school watching his future team practice to a player who led the Midshipmen to seven victories as a freshman, six of them coming in eight games as a starter.
Navy has gone from its first losing season in a decade in 2011 to an 8-5 record, including a sweep of Air Force and Army that helped the Midshipmen win the coveted Commander In Chief's Trophy for the first time in three years.
As for the offense, Niumatalolo and Jasper spent time the past few months talking with other college coaches whose teams run a spread offense out of a shotgun in order to take advantage of Reynolds, who threw for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns while running for 649 yards and nine touchdowns.
"The kid's only a sophomore, but he already has a lot of experience of being on the biggest stage for us, having played against Army and Air Force like he was a senior and a four-year starter," Jasper said.
Reynolds replaced Trey Miller in the fourth quarter at Air Force after the then junior starter sustained an ankle injury. The 5-11, 199-pound Reynolds led the Midshipmen — 1-3 with Miller at quarterback — on a fourth-quarter comeback that ended with an overtime win. Reynolds then won his first four starts.
"We just feel like we have a special guy at quarterback," Niumatalolo said during a luncheon with reporters in Annapolis last week. "He allows us to do some different things. We're trying to get some different ideas.
"A guy with his talents, his decision-making, his ability to throw the football, throw the ball under duress, throw the ball moving, get out of the pocket, his assets are a skill we have to take advantage of for our team to be the best we can be."
Niumatalolo, who is entering his sixth season as Navy's coach, admitted that just the idea of throwing the ball more is "out of our comfort zone as a staff" given the team's success running the triple-option dating back to Paul Johnson's arrival at the academy in 2002.
But Niumatalolo was quick to add that "we've had to expand and increase our knowledge to make sure we put ourselves in position to be successful. … I think to add a passing element would make us hard to defend."
It is a luxury the Midshipmen haven't had since former star quarterback Ricky Dobbs graduated.
Neither Miller nor his predecessor, Kriss Proctor, had the arm strength or pocket awareness that Dobbs had during his two years as a starter. Reynolds, the first plebe to start at quarterback in more than two decades, has a more accurate arm than Dobbs and the same instincts when plays break down.
"What we did with Ricky was really an expansion for us," Niumatalolo said. "We went no-huddle, some things we've never done. I think for us, we have to take another step. We can't go crazy and get away from who we are, either. The two things I'm most impressed with [Keenan], first of all how his option mechanics improved and how he got better and better.
"We don't have too many guys who that early, [have] not only the mechanics, but also his grasp of the offense at such a young age and also his decision-making under pressure. Ricky did a lot of good things, but also did some things like 'What are you doing?' Ricky won a ton of games for us and made a lot of plays, but this guy's decision-making is at a whole new level."
Since Navy's success will likely ride again on keeping Reynolds healthy, Niumatalolo said his starting quarterback will be off-limits to contact during drills and might even be kept out of the spring game entirely while Miller and junior John Hendrick battle it out for the backup job. Miller might also be moved to slotback if Hendrick improves.
The rapid development of Reynolds has given Jasper confidence he hasn't had as a play-caller.
"This is the first time for me where I can sit back and think how I want to do things with a quarterback who's going to be a four-year starter," Jasper said. "We're going to build around this kid and what he can do. We're going to keep our identity [as a triple-option team], but at the same time expand our offense and make it easier for us to move the football."
Patrick Stevens contributed to this article.