Former Navy QB Keenan Reynolds' transition to new position begins at Ravens rookie minicamp

For nearly a year, Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds thought about the one play he didn't make. The Midshipmen were facing Notre Dame in November 2014, when offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper dialed up a fullback pass.

Noah Copeland threw it and Reynolds was in position to catch it. Everything was set up perfectly until the ball clanked off Reynolds' hands.


"If he makes that catch, slips another tackle, maybe he scores and we win the game," Jasper said of the eventual 49-39 loss to the Fighting Irish. "That was eating him up for a year. I know deep down when he's by himself, that play plays over and over in his mind."

Thirteen months later and after Reynolds assured Jasper the result would be different, the play was called again in Navy's Military Bowl victory over Pittsburgh. Reynolds pitched the ball to Shawn White, who then lofted a pass toward a streaking Reynolds. The quarterback made the catch in front of a Pittsburgh safety and sprinted up the field for a 47-yard gain.


The play provided an exclamation point to Reynolds' record-breaking college career. It also gave him an early glimpse of what his future might hold at the next level.

A sixth-round draft pick, Reynolds began his transition from a triple-option college quarterback to an NFL wide receiver and return man Friday at the Ravens' two-day rookie minicamp.

"The first NFL practice, it's pretty cool — the stuff you dream about," Reynolds said. "To be able to put that Ravens helmet on and to be part of the team is pretty awesome."

It was also different, Reynolds conceded. For four years, Reynolds orchestrated the Navy offense, relaying the play calls and often keeping the ball in his hands. His 88 career rushing touchdowns set an all-time NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision record. He also threw a program-record 31 touchdown passes.

But Reynolds' new reality started Friday when he was tasked with listening to the play call and executing his route and responsibility.

"It's a challenge and I love challenges," Reynolds said. "I love overcoming challenges and I'm just looking forward to learning and continuing to grow as a receiver."

What the Ravens are asking of Reynolds is not especially unique. Several college quarterbacks, who might have lacked either the size or tools to play the position in the NFL, have made the transition to an NFL running back or wide receiver. Some, like Hines Ward, Julian Edelman and Brian Mitchell, have done it exceedingly well. Others, like Matt Jones and Trent Steelman — who was in Ravens camp last summer — weren't able to pull it off.

Seeking advice and guidance, Reynolds spoke to Ward before the draft and has also talked regularly with Mitchell, who was a prolific college quarterback at Southwestern Louisiana but was selected by the Washington Redskins in the fifth round of the 1990 draft and installed as a running back and return specialist. Mitchell is regarded as one of the best return men in the history of the NFL.


"To be totally honest with you, I think he's ahead of where I was," said Mitchell, who has worked out with Reynolds. "When I got drafted, it wasn't necessarily told to me what exactly I was going to do. When I was working out for people, they were trying me as defensive back, corner, receiver, running back, returner. When I got drafted, they say they drafted me as an athlete."

Given Reynolds' production and celebrity as a college quarterback, Mitchell expected him to be reluctant to change positions. But when the two first spoke, the former Navy star couldn't say enough about how excited he was for the challenge. Reynolds had come to grips with it weeks earlier when he accepted an invitation to the East-West Shrine Game in January, and saw his name on the East roster listed among the running backs.

"I saw I wasn't a quarterback anymore, and I was like, 'Well, this is fun,'" Reynolds said.

Reynolds expects certain things about his new roles to come naturally. Even in a run-oriented offense at Navy, he gained an understanding of what quarterbacks expect out of their receivers. As a runner, he knows how to find a seam in the defense and make the first tackler miss, traits that should help him in the return game.

Other skills he'll need are a little more foreign. That's why he has been running routes each day and catching kicks and punts from a variety of angles.

"Every position has technique that you have to perfect," Reynolds said. "Guys will spend years, 10, 15 years-plus perfecting these techniques, and I'm a newborn at this position. I just have to work extremely hard, twice as hard as the next man to get used to the position and get better at the technique."


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During their workout, Mitchell had Reynolds catching punts with only his right hand, then his left hand and then with footballs under his arms. In two of the scenarios, Reynolds botched the first punt but didn't drop one the rest of the time. Weeks later, Mitchell watched a video of Reynolds doing the same exact drills and he looked even better than he did during the workout.

When Ravens coach John Harbaugh called Mitchell, who had Harbaugh as a special teams coach with the Philadelphia Eagles, Mitchell told him that Reynolds was a "natural" as a returner.

"The NFL players that are great are those who take what they have been taught and they work in their own time so they can master them," Mitchell said. "That day he picked up everything so quick. It shows he's a quick study and he has really good hands. It will be a challenge for him, but he doesn't wait on anybody to tell him what he needs to do."

Jasper understands the challenge his former player faces. In the early 1990s, he was a quarterback at Hawaii, but he ultimately transitioned to the role of slot back.

"The transition of route running and catching punts will be a challenge, but you get a kid like him every blue moon, if you want to be cliché about it," Jasper said. "This kid wants to be good at everything he does. You know he's going to work, you know he's going to put the time in. Keenan is always thinking football. All the intangibles play right into what he needs to do. He's going to do whatever he can to succeed."