More than 20 years after arriving at the University of Hawaii as a big-armed quarterback from Los Angeles, Ivin Jasper knows his throwing days are behind him. Ken Niumatalolo can recall times before practice in recent years when Jasper would show off the arm by easily winning friendly distance competitions with the Navy quarterbacks.
"He had a cannon. He could throw the ball unbelievably. He could throw it 80 yards," said Niumatalolo, whose association with his 42-year-old quarterbacks coach and offensive coodinator dates to when the fifth-year head coach was a graduate assistant at Hawaii, his alma mater. "He could probably still cork one if he needed to."
Jasper said he stopped those throwdowns about five years ago, after a couple of shoulder surgeries. And as much as he still loves when the Midshipmen pass the ball, Jasper concedes that he's much more of a "run-first guy" after years of playing in and later coaching the triple-option he learned from Paul Johnson, then the offensive coordinator at Hawaii.
But sometimes Jasper's roots as a passer come to the surface in his current role as Navy's play-caller, as they have in recent weeks during the remarkable rise of freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who has led the Midshipmen to five straight victories going into Saturday's game at Troy. A good part of Navy's success has resulted from Reynolds throwing the ball.
"When you game-plan, you try to find ways to move the football, you try to find ways to score. We want to grind it out, but you've got to be smart and you've got to throw some play-action [passes] in there," Jasper said. "Being able to throw the football the last few games has definitely made things a lot easier, because it helps keep people off of you and opens up the running game."
Jasper has made some timely calls during the winning streak, perhaps none better than the pass play that resulted in the game-winning touchdown in a 31-30 victory over Indiana three weeks ago. Thinking that the Hoosiers might run a corner blitz on third-and-goal from the 4, Jasper had Reynolds wait for the cornerback to rush before lofting a perfect pass to a wide-open Matt Aiken in the end zone.
There was more of that creativity — done as much out of necessity as surprise — last Saturday. With the Midshipmen trailing Florida Atlantic 10-0 in the second quarter at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, a 48-yard run by Reynolds proved to be the first sign of offensive life the Midshipmen showed. Jasper followed by calling a number of pass plays that led to Navy taking a 14-10 halftime lead.
Senior wide receiver Brandon Turner caught a touchdown pass in each half of a 24-17 victory that helped Navy (6-3) match its longest winning streak in three years and made the Midshipmen bowl-eligible for the ninth time in the past 10 seasons. Turner could envision Jasper pumping his fist from his vantage point in the coaches' box each time one of those passes clicked.
"We have a few short routes, but most of them are big plays," Turner said after practice Wednesday. "I can already tell when somebody catches a big pass that he's up top in the booth, saying, 'Yes!' You know it's something special."
While Reynolds has received much of the credit for the team's turnaround after Navy's worst start in a decade, Jasper has certainly been responsible for putting the poised plebe in the right places. Reynolds credits much of his rapid development since coming to Annapolis last summer to the honest assessment he gets every week while watching film.
"He's always on me. No matter how good I think I did, there's always something I can improve on," Reynolds said. "He's a very detailed man, if one detail is missing in my steps, he's going to give me a lot of grief about it. I like that, someone to keep me honest, keep me grounded, keep me humble. It gives me the opportunity to grow exponentially under his tutelage."
When the offense was struggling through the first four games with Trey Miller at quarterback — scoring a total of 17 points in losses to Notre Dame, Penn State and San Jose State, compared with 142 since Reynolds became the starter — Jasper deflected most of the criticism away from the turnover-prone junior.
Though Jasper said Miller had to do a better job taking care of the ball, Jasper also noted that he had to do a better job coaching. Not that Jasper takes much of the credit for Reynolds' performances, which include becoming the first Navy quarterback in 15 years to throw three touchdowns in a game (against Central Michigan) and both rushing and passing for well over 100 yards last Saturday.
Jasper acknowledges that the quarterback he is now working with, much like former Navy star Ricky Dobbs, makes him look good.
"I try not to say much and ride this things out, but the kid is playing well," Jasper said of Reynolds, who has accounted for 14 touchdowns, eight of them on passes, since taking over against Air Force on Oct. 6. "I can sit here and try to downplay it, but you've got to give credit where credit is due."
If Navy continues to win this season, Jasper's name could surface again for bigger jobs — possibly as a head coach — as it did when he interviewed at Army and was mentioned prominently at Vanderbilt in 2008. As he did then, Jasper will likely downplay it as he does any notion that the team's recent stretch has anything to do with his play-calling.
"It's never about me," Jasper said. "That's kind of been kind of our team's motto. When I became a coordinator, even when I was a position coach, there's so much help I get. Even Saturday, we practiced for something way different from what they came out and lined up in. All our coaches immediately said, 'Let's adjust.' They see it, they understand it. I have great eyes out there."
Said Niumatalolo: "Ivin is probably the most underappreciated guy to me in the whole Navy athletic department, I firmly believe that. Coach [Paul] Johnson is a great coach and was also the offensive coordinator when he was here, but Ivin was the quarterback coach and I thought he did a great job with all the quarterbacks. ... When I became head coach, I knew I could trust Ivin [as offensive coordinator]."
Turner once got to see Jasper's arm when they threw the ball around before a game at Hawaii three years ago, and Reynolds is curious to see "what he's still got." But those days are behind Jasper as he helps the Midshipmen prepare for another run at a Commander In Chief's Trophy against Army on Dec. 8 in Philadelphia and then a bowl matchup against a Pacific-12 team in San Francisco on Dec. 29.
"It was fun throwing it around with the guys a few years ago to show that I still had it, but my shoulder can't take it anymore," Jasper said with a laugh. "It's nowhere close to where it was. I don't know if I could throw it 20 yards. Even if I did [throw it far], they would probably say, 'OK, coach, whatever.' But those were good times."
Last meeting: Navy won, 42-14, on Oct. 5, 2011, in Annapolis
Navy offense vs. Troy defense: The Midshipmen's game plan against the Trojans will be similar to the one they have against most teams that like to pass — keep Troy's offense off the field for as long as possible. Troy is better against the run (72nd nationally, giving up 168 yards per game) than it is against the pass (103rd, 266.3 yards) but Navy can probably have success either way. Last week, Florida Atlantic tried to take away Navy's fullback dive and outside pitches to its slotbacks, so freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds (more than 300 yards of offense, three touchdowns, including two passing TDs) had another big day. In the game against Troy a year ago, Navy broke a six-game losing streak and led 35-0 by halftime. The Midshipmen will be going for their first six-game winning streak since starting the 1974 season 6-0.
Navy defense vs.Troy offense: The Midshipmen will be challenged again by a fairly proficient passing attack, and a more than respectable running game. Led by junior quarterback Corey Robinson, the Trojans rank 15th in the country passing (315 yards per game) and 15th overall in yardage (488.7). But Robinson has nearly as many interceptions (eight) as touchdown passes (nine). Troy racked up 721 yards in a 55-48 shootout loss at Tennessee last week and has 11 passes of 40 or more yards and six of 50 of more yards this season, eighth-best in the country. Navy has overcome early 10-point deficits in two of its last five wins, as well as a late eight-point deficit at Air Force, and the defense has usually come up with big stops or turnovers when it mattered. Senior linebacker Keegan Wetzel leads the defense with 12 tackles for loss, including six sacks, but Troy's offense line has surrendered only seven sacks, none in the Trojans' two games against Southeastern Conference opponents (they also lost to Mississippi State, 30-24, on Sept. 15).