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QB Keenan Reynolds brings a new dimension to Navy's offense

Academy life is a little easier for Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds as he begins his sophomore year. The adjustment from being away from home, the transition to a more rigorous academic workload and getting accustomed to the off-field responsibility of a midshipman have become routine for Reynolds.

Being the de facto leader of the team's offense and its unquestioned star, no matter how much he tries to deflect the attention that comes with each, has been admittedly more difficult as Reynolds gets ready for Navy's 2013 season opener Sept. 7 at Indiana.

"As far as the academy is concerned, it's a lot more relaxed in the hall," Reynolds said recently. "I kind of got my feet under me and I know what's going on, kind of got the ins and outs of the hall. In the class, [I] kind of know what to expect from the academic side of it.

"Being the starter, there's a lot more expectations, a lot more things that the coaches want and expect me to do, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform to the highest level I can. It's definitely a lot more work."

Reynolds did not spend much time reflecting on his performance as a ground-breaking freshman, the first plebe to start for Navy at quarterback in 21 years, the player who lifted the Midshipmen from a potential 1-4 start by leading a fourth-quarter comeback at Air Force off the bench and then following it up with victories in six of the next seven games as a starter.

"I saw a lot of flaws in everything I did last year," said Reynolds, who rushed for 649 yards and 10 touchdowns while throwing for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns. "I sometimes cringe when I watch tape of last year, like 'How did I make that mistake? That was such a blatant misread, such a blatant bad decision.' The pressure I put on myself keeps me going, keeps me motivated, keeps me driven."

When the season was over after a deflating 62-28 loss to Arizona State in the Fight Hunger Bowl at San Francisco's AT&T Park in which Reynolds completed just five of 11 passes for 14 yards and threw an interception, the Navy quarterback quickly moved on to the team's next game that was still more than eight months away.

"After the Arizona State game, that left a bad taste in my mouth, but I didn't dwell on it too much," Reynolds said. "I realized that I didn't play well. I spent a lot of time watching Indiana. I watched Indiana a lot getting ready for the next season. Come September 7th, we're not playing Arizona State — we're playing Indiana. That's been my main focus."

The quarterback the Big 10 Hoosiers will see in Bloomington should be a more polished version of what they witnessed in Annapolis last October. Two weeks after helping Navy win in overtime in Colorado Springs, one week after throwing for three touchdowns in his first start at Central Michigan, Reynolds brought the Midshipmen back from another fourth quarter deficit to win 31-30 at home.

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, who put Reynolds in against Air Force after junior starter Trey Miller hurt his ankle with his team trailing by nine points, said he has never been around a quarterback who has grasped the intricacies of the trademark triple option offense as quickly as Reynolds. Not Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada or Ricky Dobbs, the two best quarterbacks during Niumatalolo's first five years as head coach.

"I've never had a quarterback play as well in his first year in the Army-Navy game and in the Air Force game," Niumatalolo said before preseason practice began last month. "Kaipo was as good a quarterback as we've had and in his first game he struggled. … Keenan played well in both of those games. I was impressed that a young guy could handle all that pressure and help us come back and win."

Senior receiver and co-captain Matt Aiken said that what Reynolds did last season was not a big surprise after watching him in practice.

"We pretty much knew what was coming, the way he composed himself in practice and in camp as soon as he got here was incredible," Aiken said. "We kind of expected him to step up and he expected himself to step up."

It is similar to what Reynolds did in high school, when he showed up at Goodpasture Christian School outside Nashville, Tenn., and started for the varsity in the team's first game his freshman year. About the only thing that prevented Reynolds from going to a bigger Football Bowl Subdivision program was his size (generously listed at 5 feet 11, 185-pounds).

"It's a lot more work, [but] really it's the same game," Reynolds said. "You've got to be a lot more detailed, but I knew I was going to have to work especially hard to climb the ladder and eventually start. It definitely took a lot longer than in high school, but it was all right with me. I had 100 percent faith in what the coaches wanted to do."

Donnie Reynolds recalled what he told his son before he left for Annapolis last summer.

"I said, 'Don't expect to start Week 1, there's no college coach in this world that's going to put a [true] freshman out there Week 1,'" the elder Reynolds said last week. "'When you get your opportunity, seize it, and don't give it back. Make it so hard for the coaches that when they think they made the right decision, make them know they made the right decision.'"

Reynolds began watching game film with his father, a former college player and high school coach, when he was in middle school. He has watched tape of Dobbs, who took over toward the end of his sophomore year. Reynolds said that he "has glanced" at the stats of Roger Staubach when he won the Heisman Trophy, but otherwise "I really don't think about that — I just line up and play."

Those who have followed Reynolds might suspect that he has always watched tapes of other quarterbacks who are height-challenged, such as Drew Brees and Russell Wilson, to see how they can be successful. Reynolds said he has never watched tape of Wilson, but studies Tom Brady instead. "His footwork, his release and his accuracy are bar none," Reynolds said.

That the Midshipmen are even considering throwing the ball more than in the past — practicing the four-wide receiver set so often in preseason camp that Reynolds had to sit out the past few days with a sore arm — is a testament to their sophomore quarterback and the skills he brings that others didn't. But how much Navy throws this season depends on how well Reynolds is running the triple option.

"I think what [offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ivin] Jasper has always told me is that how much we do that stuff is based on the decision-making at the quarterback," Reynolds said. "In practice and games make the best decision possible and try to be as creative as possible, playing scared and knowing that one mistake can change the game."

Reynolds is also aware that as the quarterback of the football team, he is viewed differently by others outside the team. The one disappointment last year for Reynolds was his academic performance. A better-than-straight A student in high school, Reynolds said he struggled to reach a 3.0 [B] average as a freshman and promises to do better this year.

"I don't like mediocrity in anything I do," he said.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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Navy at a glance

Coach: Ken Niumatalolo (sixth season)

Conference: Independent

Last season: 8-5

Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM

Stadium: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium

Tickets: Single-game tickets available for all home games except Air Force (Oct. 5). For more information, go to navysports.com

Offense: Triple option

Defense: 3-4

Outlook: Niumatalolo has said from the start of preseason camp that this is the most talented Navy team he has been around in his 16 seasons in Annapolis as a head coach and assistant. The Midshipmen are led offensively by sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who threw for 10 touchdowns and ran for nine. Navy has been spending a lot of its practice time running more of a spread offense, but the Midshipmen will certainly be a run-first team in its trademark triple option. Another sophomore, Chris Swain, could start the season at fullback ahead of returning starter Noah Copeland, who was the team's second-leading rusher with 738 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore. Though playmakers Gee Gee Greene and Brandon Turner have graduated, Reynolds will have solid receivers in seniors Matt Aiken, Shawn Lynch and Casey Bolena. The slotback group is deep but relatively inexperienced. Keeping Reynolds healthy is a priority since neither of his backups, juniors John Hendrick and Kody Akers, are anywhere close to his level. Defensively, the Midshipmen could be the most athletic and physical bunch of players seen in Annapolis in a long time. After giving up 62 points to Arizona State in a bowl game, defensive coordinator Buddy Green has challenged his unit throughout the spring and summer. The key could be replacing linebackers Keegan Wetzel and Matt Warrick. Junior inside linebacker Chris Johnson, who was expected to start last season before tearing his ACL in a preseason scrimmage, has the talent to be the quarterback-blitzing force that Wetzel was as a senior, while senior inside linebacker D.J. Sargenti, a converted quarterback, could be one of those one-season tackling machines that Navy always seems to have. The Midshipmen should make a bowl game again as long as they keep Reynolds upright, and with a rebuilding Air Force team coming to Annapolis this season, should have little trouble retaining the Commander In Chief's Trophy.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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