Reporting David Elfin
Back in the bad old days in Annapolis, which were all of five weeks ago, Navy’s football program wasn’t offering a lot of hope. After being crushed 50-10 by Notre Dame in Dublin and 34-7 at Penn State to open the season and then losing at San Jose State following a conquest of VMI, the Midshipmen were 6-11 since they beat archrival Army to end the 2010 regular season.
Junior quarterback Trey Miller, who had played well in 2011, was doing the Rex Grossman turnover thing. And when Miller re-injured his right ankle during the fourth quarter the next week at Air Force, coach Ken Niumatalolo turned to freshman Keenan Reynolds.
The 5-foot-11, 199-pound Reynolds didn’t have the extra year of maturity that so many Midshipmen receive at prep schools. He had attended his high school prom less than six months earlier. Reynolds’ introduction to the academy over the summer, like every plebe’s, had required tolerating being constantly berated by upperclassmen, dozens of whom he was now expected to lead as their quarterback. But Niumatalolo knew that as a high school freshman in Nashville, Reynolds had replaced a senior and been a successful starter.
Air Force, which had stunned host Navy in overtime in 2011, led 21-13 when Reynolds replaced Miller with time-a-wasting, but the freshman was far from intimidated. He directed a six-play, 75-yard drive that he finished with a 15-yard touchdown run. Fullback Noah Copeland took the ball across the goal line for the 2-point conversion to force overtime during which the Middies kicked a field goal to complete the comeback and win 24-21.
The next week, Reynolds became the first plebe to start at quarterback in 21 years. Navy beat host Central Michigan 31-13 and hasn’t looked back since. Heading into tomorrow’s game at Troy (4-5, including a loss Florida Atlantic, last Saturday’s victim in Annapolis), the Middies have won five straight to improve to 6-3 and clinch a berth in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco on Dec. 29.
Reynolds has run 94 times for 477 yards and six touchdowns and completed 35 of 57 passes for 560 yards and eight touchdowns with just one interception in becoming a local college version of Robert Griffin III, the outstanding and electrifying Redskins rookie quarterback.
While Reynolds doesn’t have the effusive cockiness of Ricky Dobbs, who was already planning to be President as Navy’s star quarterback from late 2008 through 2010, he has had a galvanizing effect in Annapolis. The Middies, who had averaged just 14.5 points in Miller’s four starts, have been nearly twice as potent (28.3) with Reynolds at quarterback.
“I’ve never seen one change of personnel make such a difference,” said Pete Medhurst, part of Navy’s broadcast team since 1997. “Keenan plays with such calm and poise and he throws the ball better than Ricky Dobbs did.”
While Navy hasn’t exactly been beating Murderer’s Row – Indiana and East Carolina are its other victims – the program is back to the more than competitive level where it was during Niumatalolo’s first three years in command (27-13) and his 10 years as an assistant (79-51).
Victories over Troy, Texas State in the home finale, and Army, in a head-to-head clash for the Commander in Chief’s Trophy for the first time since 2005, would put the Middies in position to win 10 games with a bowl triumph. Only the 1905, 2004 and 2009 teams have ever done so during Navy’s football history that dates to the 19th century.
And the future might be even brighter in Annapolis since Reynolds is one of just 13 underclassman regulars, seven of whom are on defense. He has only started four games, but if they’re a hint of what’s ahead, superstars Roger Staubach, Joe Bellino, Napoleon McCallum and David Robinson might have company in Navy’s pantheon come 2015.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin