The first time Keenan Reynolds saw a Navy football game, the Midshipmen were three-touchdown underdogs to sixth-ranked Ohio State in the 2009 season opener.
Reynolds was a sophomore at Goodpasture Christian School outside Nashville, Tenn., and was barely on anyone's recruiting radar. As he watched the game on television, Reynolds started paying attention to Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs.
Dobbs, then a junior who had just taken over as the starter, nearly led the Midshipmen to an upset win in Columbus. Navy cut a 29-14 deficit to two points with a little over two minutes left, only to lose, 31-27, when a pass by Dobbs on a 2-point conversion was intercepted and returned to the other end zone.
"As I got older, it wasn't like I was following Navy football, I just knew who Ricky was," Reynolds recalled last week. "He was the face of Navy football."
That is where Reynolds finds himself going into the 2014 season opener, also against the Buckeyes. There is irony, and symmetry, in the junior quarterback's chance to do one of few things Dobbs could not while at Navy.
The Midshipmen on Saturday will play fifth-ranked Ohio State, still favored but suddenly vulnerable after a season-ending shoulder injury to quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller, at M&T Bank Stadium.
As it became apparent to Reynolds that he was headed to Annapolis, he began looking into what Dobbs had done at Navy, including a 19-8 record as a starter. When he arrived at the academy in summer 2012, Reynolds watched tape of the way several quarterbacks — Dobbs, in particular — ran the triple option for the Midshipmen.
Dobbs' legacy loomed when Reynolds took over as a starter five games into his freshman year. Dobbs helped beat Army twice and Notre Dame twice, and he broke Tim Tebow's single-season NCAA record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback.
The comparisons intensified when Reynolds, the first plebe to start at quarterback in more than 20 years, went 6-2 as a starter as a freshman. Reynolds would go on to break Dobbs' record, and he still has two years to add to his legacy, one he stresses is all about winning.
"When I was coming in my freshman year, it wasn't a thought: 'I got to beat Ricky's [single-season touchdown] record,'" Reynolds said. "Even coming into my sophomore year, I wasn't even thinking about the record.
"I think about what he's done. I certainly want to outdo that as far as winning games. Naturally, the competitor in me wants to outdo that, but at the end of the day, he's Ricky, I'm Keenan. I've taken a lot of advice from him. He's definitely been something of a mentor to me. But if you're chasing ghosts and try to outdo something in the past, that can get you distracted."
Since coming off the bench to lead Navy back from an eight-point, fourth-quarter deficit in an overtime win at Air Force in 2012, Reynolds has outdone Dobbs in many ways.
In two seasons, Reynolds has rushed for 1,995 yards and 41 touchdowns and passed for 1,955 yards and 17 touchdowns, with only four interceptions.
Reynolds has helped the Midshipmen win two straight Commander-in-Chief's trophies. He has won 15 of 21 starts. He broke the record shared by Dobbs and former Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein with 31 rushing touchdowns last season, including seven in a three-overtime win at San Jose State.
In December, Dobbs, who recently finished navigational training in Newport, R.I., was at sea when he heard from his commanding officer that Reynolds had broken the NCAA record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback during Navy's victory over Army. Dobbs beamed.
"I'm always bragging [about] him, 'That's my little sponsor brother," said Dobbs, who introduced Reynolds to Richard Gray, a local attorney who along with his wife, Kim, has sponsored midshipmen for more than a decade. (Navy's sponsorship program pairs midshipmen with local families they can spend time with away from the academy.)
Dobbs understands the role he has played in Reynolds' development.
"It makes a world of difference when the quarterbacks that come before you take an interest in you," he said. "No matter what I was able to do, even if I wouldn't have won a game at Navy, I would still invest in the guys that came after me and give them some insight."
Though Dobbs was very close to Trey Miller, whom Reynolds replaced at quarterback, he felt a connection to Reynolds as well. While Reynolds is more reserved than Dobbs, the former Navy star saw some similarities in the way Reynolds carried himself.
"I knew he was going to be special; that was more from a spiritual standpoint," Dobbs said. "I could tell that he was very humble. When I saw him play, he has this humble and modest approach to a lot of things. I knew he would end up being one of the good ones. I didn't know he would end up hitting the scene like he did."
'Keenan is business'
What has struck Richard Gray since Reynolds got to Navy is the quarterback's focus.
"I have seen midshipmen who take a little more time to embrace the Naval Academy way and the Navy way. Keenan seemed to understand it very early and totally embraces it," said Gray, who lives in Crownsville and has sponsored Reynolds for the past year. "Keenan studies situations. He's a learner."
After previously calling Dobbs and Reynolds the two best option quarterbacks Navy has had, Midshipmen coach Ken Niumatalolo has made it clear that the 5-foot-10, 195-pound Reynolds is now without peer.
The difference can be found in Reynolds' head. Niumatalolo has called Reynolds "the smartest quarterback that I've ever been around," and he feels Reynolds' preparation makes him such an effective leader.
"Both of these guys are tremendous leaders, but they lead differently," Niumatalolo said. "Ricky is the Pied Piper. Our team followed Ricky because they loved him. He was just this infectious guy who talked to everybody. ...
"Keenan is a great leader, but I think his leadership comes from just from his meticulous preparation and just who he is as a person. ... I think guys respect Keenan. They see his discpline. Keenan is business. He was pretty quiet the first two years. He's been way more vocal this year."
Whereas Dobbs got by more on instincts and sheer athleticism, Reynolds is more of a student of the game who has a knack for getting Navy into the right play, even when he has to change it at the line of scrimmage.
"When I get into a situation, I don't allow myself to branch out so quickly," Reynolds said. "I survey. I calculate. I'm very meticulous with everything I do. I just make sure everything is in place. I have a plan. I have a backup plan. I think about everything, even the littlest of things."
In the 2009 loss to Ohio State, Dobbs said not changing the play he initially called in the huddle cost Navy a chance at tying the game on the 2-point conversion.
Set up for a pass to slotback Bobby Doyle, Dobbs said he thought about running what he called "my bread-and-butter play": Dobbs would fake a handoff to the fullback and run in behind him.
"Then I overrruled it," Dobbs said. "I thought, 'We got this.' When I snapped the ball, boom, I saw Bobby Doyle and I thought he was open. I didn't see [Ohio State defensive back Brian] Rolle. I threw the ball, and he came into my field of view. He picked it off and took off running. I didn't have the angle to catch him."
Asked recently whether Navy would have won the game had it gone into overtime, Dobbs said: "Without a doubt."
Avoiding the 'hype'
Dobbs said the most important advice he plans to give Reynolds when they talk before this year's Ohio State game is "don't second-guess yourself if it's close in the game. Go with your gut instinct."
His other advice has more to do with what happened to Dobbs as a senior, when he was being mentioned as a dark-horse candidate for the Heisman.
In a season-opening, 17-14 loss to Maryland at M&T Bank Stadium in 2010, Dobbs fumbled twice near the goal line, including at the 1-yard line in the final minute. The Heisman talk went away quickly, though Dobbs would lead Navy to a 9-4 record.
"I will tell him to [not] worry about who Ohio State is. Don't get caught up in the hype, the Heisman talk," Dobbs said. "Stay humble."
That doesn't seem to be a problem with Reynolds.
In helping him prepare for a season in which he is being mentioned as a dark-horse Heisman candidate himself, Reynolds can remember what happened to him in the season opener his senior year at Goodpasture.
"We were coming off a year when we were 13-2, state runner-ups, my best season in high school, All-State. The hype was there, just got my first offer from Navy, feeling pretty good about myself," Reynolds recalled. "Feeling pretty confident, playing a team we had beat the previous year twice."
In a one-sided loss to Christ Presbyterian Academy, Reynolds said he "played absolutely awful."
"I came in with all the hype," he said. "I wanted to be Mr. Football [in Tennessee]. I wanted to be this or that. I got so caught up in all the things I wanted to do that I came out and laid an egg. I was over-antsy about everything."
That memory has pushed Reynolds for the past three years, the past two at Navy. It will push him into a 2014 season that begins with Ohio State, just as it did for Dobbs five years ago.
But this has nothing to do with Dobbs, and little to do with the Buckeyes.
"I compete with myself," Reynolds said. "I have my new goals, my new standards. That's what I have to live up to. I want to be perfect, and I'm going to chase perfection until I reach it."
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