Keenan Reynolds changed the play.
His coach had called for Reynolds to sneak up the middle, but the quarterback noticed that the defense was loading the box and thought he could get to the outside. With his team near the goal line, trailing by six points with seconds remaining, Reynolds figured he could score.
"We were supposed to do a quarterback sneak, and I just ran outside because I didn't think it was going to work," Reynolds recalled. "I ended up scoring."
Reynolds was 5 years old at the time, and his touchdown gave the Gra-Mar Pirates the Mid-State Youth Football league championship. While Reynolds barely remembers the play — "It's a faint memory," he said with a laugh — Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo smiled when the story was retold to him last week.
"I'm not surprised," Niumatalolo said.
Changing the play at the line of scrimmage, and more importantly getting his team into a play that will work better, is something Reynolds has been doing with regularity. From his years playing youth football to Goodpasture Christian School to Navy, Reynolds' ability as a quarterback is enhanced by his decision-making.
"He's the smartest quarterback that I've been around. He's so mentally tough," Niumatalolo said last week, as the Reynolds and the Midshipmen continued preparation for Saturday's game against Army at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. "He knows what [defenses] are doing, and he can tell you clearly what they're doing, and then he's able to execute.
"And that's what this offense has always been about. If you can get us into the right play and get the ball to the right person, you have a chance. Keenan does it better than anyone I've ever seen. He's the best quarterback I've ever been around."
What Reynolds has done in his sophomore season, including a Football Bowl Subdivision record seven-touchdown performance in Navy's 58-52 triple overtime victory at San Jose State on Nov. 22, is what former Grey-Mar Pirates coach Reggie Jones and former Goodpasture Christian coach David Martin saw when the quarterback as he was growing up outside Nashville, Tenn.
Jones, who has coached youth football in that area for nearly 30 years, said watching Navy on television reminds of what he saw in coaching from Reynolds from ages 5 through 8. By the time Reynolds was 7, Jones said he threw for more than 1,000 yards in an eight-game season.
"People don't believe it when I tell them," Jones said. "Our first play was 'Go Out.' We'd put a man out wide, and he'd run straight down the field. [Reynolds] could throw it about 30 yards. We'd throw it out there and just let the wide receiver go get it."
Reynolds might not have been the most talented player Jones coached — that distinction belongs to Golden Tate, now a wide receiver with the Seattle Seahawks — but he was certainly the best in terms of leadership and decision-making.
"The way kids look at him and play around him, he lifts them up," Jones said.
Martin, who coached Reynolds throughout high school, recalled telling his team that a freshman would start the opening game against a division rival. Some players were skeptical, but the team's star senior running back was not.
Benny Cunningham, now with the St. Louis Rams, told Martin, "Hey, put him in, don't worry about it, we'll be fine,'" Martin recalled. "He won his first game, 14-7, threw a great pass to get us out of a predicament, and Bennie came off the field and said, 'Told you so.' I knew exactly what he meant."
Reynolds took over as the team's leader after Cunningham graduated and ultimately became his own offensive coordinator in Goodpasture Christian's pass-oriented offense .
"He and I spent just a lot of time together talking about how to attack a defense, and after his freshman year I started to go more and more to listening to him," said Martin, who left Goodpasture Christian this year after 21 seasons and is now coaching at another school in the area. "By his senior year he was calling a lot of his own stuff."
Not only is what Reynolds has done at Navy reminiscent of what he did in high school, but Martin seems similarities in what Reynolds says after games and what others say about him.
"It's interesting to read some of the things coming out of Navy about what a great teammate he is and how concerned he is about his teammates," Martin said. "He's the ultimate leader, I think."
Donny Reynolds, who played safety at Tennessee-Martin in the early 1980s, said that from the youngest age, his now 19-year-old son demonstrated a preternatural calm that he got from both his grandfathers.
"Keenan has always been taught, 'Don't be a follower, be a leader. Don't follow the pack,'" he said of Reynolds, who will turn 20 the day before the Army-Navy game. "If [the other players] looked at someone who believed they could execute the play, that takes away the doubt. A lot of times they look at him [and think], 'I'm out here shaking in my pants and this guy is laid back, and he's going to lead us to a touchdown.'"
Niumatalolo said the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Reynolds has surpassed the accomplishments of former Navy quarterbacks Ricky Dobbs, Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada and Chris McCoy in terms of running a triple-option offense based mostly on timing and precision.
Niumatalolo said Reynolds changes the plays called by Navy offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper "all the time" and that inevitably he gets the Midshipmen in the right one. Lately, Reynolds has been calling his own number quite a bit.
Going into Saturday's game, Reynolds has 26 rushing touchdowns for the season, one shy of tying the FBS record set by Dobbs and former Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein. He leads the country in scoring per game and has helped account for 204 points this season, breaking Dobbs' school record of 198.
While his performance in a late-night nationally televised game against San Jose State might win Reynolds an ESPY award, his five-touchdown game in a 38-34 loss at Notre Dame three weeks earlier might have been the best of what has already been a remarkable career.
"Here he's checking plays in one of the loudest stadiums you can play in, looking at the clock and snapping the ball with one second," Niumatalolo said. "I would have never done that with anybody else. I would have burned a couple of timeouts."
It has been that way for Reynolds at Navy ever since he replaced Trey Miller in the fourth quarter of last season's game at Air Force. Trailing the Falcons by eight points, Reynolds helped force overtime and lead the then 1-3 Midshipmen to a season-changing, program-transforming victory.
By the end of the season, Reynolds had led the Midshipmen on a couple more fourth-quarter comebacks, including against Army, when he overcame an early fumble to make several big plays down the stretch and lead Navy to its 11th straight win over its historic rival.
"During the season he showed a lot of mental toughness," Jasper said. "The Air Force game he came in and just didn't flinch. The Army game he turned the ball over and he said, 'I have to make up for it'. He sat on the bench and he didn't get down. Lucky for us, he made some really huge plays for us and got us a W."
'Student of the game'
Reynolds said he typically goes to the line of scrimmage with the play Jasper calls, but it depends on what the defense is showing and what the Midshipmen have practiced against certain formations.
"It's automatic, because we've done it so much in the meetings," Reynolds said. "Coach Jasper will stop the film and say, 'If they do this, why don't we check [off and call another play]. I really don't think about specific plays unless we make a sideline adjustment. It kind of varies from game to game."
Said Jasper: "He really studies. He asks a lot of questions. He knows the game plan inside and out. He's just a student of the game, and that's a tribute to him. ... As a quarterback, he's probably graded out consistently the highest that we've had since I've been here. Every game, he's played well, he's played smart."
Even as a freshman, Reynolds said that Jasper would chide him for not getting the team in the right play.
"He said it was my job and I had to do it," said Reynolds. "Regardless of whether I was a freshman, he still expected a lot of me."
Jasper said Reynolds' performance against San Jose State, which included him scoring on each of Navy's three overtime possessions, was "at the top of the list" by any quarterback he has coached in the triple option.
But as has become his pattern, Reynolds pointed out that he didn't grade out as well against Notre Dame and San Jose State as he has in other games. He is still irked by an errant pitch late in the game in South Bend that he believes cost the Midshipmen the game.
"I would say that I could have done a lot better in both games, actually," Reynolds said. "I didn't play as well as I'd like at Notre Dame, and I started off a little shaky against San Jose State. I don't really hang my hat on one particular game as my best game. I want the next game to be the best game. That's how I approach each week."
Said Jasper: "He coaches himself. He's hard on himself. He's a perfectionist. He was raised that way. He played in a very competitive Pop Warner league — these kids were 10 years old and they were being coached like they were in high school or college. He wants to be a good quarterback."
Given the setting and the fact that no Navy freshman had started at quarterback in more than two decades, what Reynolds did against Army last season was a highlight in his growing resume.
While the Black Knights held Reynolds to 43 yards on 10 carries, he made a couple of game-saving passes before scoring what turned out to be the winning touchdown on an 8-yard run with 4:40 left in the game. The Midshipmen survived, 17-13, after Army fullback Larry Dixon fumbled at the Navy 14.
Watching games like that on television, Reynolds' two former coaches feel as if they are going back in time.
"It feels like it was yesterday," his youth coach Jones said. "When I watch the Navy games and see how he runs those quarterback dives and stuff like that, I think about when he was 5 years old and I told him, 'You've got to be a leader now,' and that's what he's doing at Navy — leading them up and down the field."
Said his high school coach Martin: "Keenan was always if you needed to run he runs, if you need to throw he throws. Whatever you needed to be done to win, that's what he is about. ... It was certainly evident that he had the 'it' factor."
Still does.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun