Reporting David Elfin
WASHINGTON (CBSDC) - The first-year quarterback from a state that starts with a T took the reins of his struggling Washington-area team in 2012 and carried it back to postseason. Now, as the 2013 season begins, he wants more.
No, I’m not talking about the guy who wears burgundy and gold on game days in Landover. I’m talking about the kid who’s four years younger and does his work on Saturdays in Annapolis.
While Texan Robert Griffin III was terrific in turning the Redskins from a cellar-dweller into the NFC East champions in just one year, Tennessean Keenan Reynolds’ performance was more unexpected.
After Navy had gotten off to a 1-3 start last fall, the freshman came off the bench to lead a comeback from an eight-point deficit with six minutes left to win in overtime at Air Force and then proceeded to go 6-2 as a starter. It’s believed that Reynolds was just the fifth true freshman in FBS history to win his first four starts.
“As we started to scrimmage last year, you could see that Keenan was special,” said Navy sixth-year coach Ken Niumatalolo. “He had a couple decent plays against Notre Dame and Penn State, but it was mop-up time so you didn’t put too much credence into it. But on maybe his third play [against Air Force], he went through his reads and none of them were open so he hit the safety valve for a 20-yard gain down the sideline. All I could say was, ‘Wow.’ I wasn’t sure if starting a freshman was the right thing to do. It was putting a lot of pressure on him. But Keenan’s maturity level was beyond anything I had ever seen. So we were like, ‘You know what? Let’s leave this kid alone. Let’s let his natural ability take its course.’”
It certainly did. Projected over a full season, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Reynolds would’ve set the Navy record for touchdown passes while his aerial yardage would have been the Midshipmen’s fourth-highest total in 18 years.
“Keenan has such great touch,” said senior receiver Matt Aiken, a co-captain along with senior linebacker Cody Peterson. “He can put balls in tight spots that I had never seen a quarterback do.”
The Midshipmen, so run-oriented the past 11 seasons under Niumatalolo and predecessor Paul Johnson, became a dual-threat offense with Reynolds under center. And like Griffin, Reynolds can run like a back. He would’ve also been Navy’s leading rusher if his statistics as a starter were projected over a full season.
“We’ve still got to be good at running the ball [sixth in the nation in 2012], but Keenan’s passing ability will make us harder to defend,” Niumatalolo said.
So there’s little wonder that there’s plenty of excitement in Annapolis as Navy prepares to open the season on Saturday at Indiana, looking for a non-BCS record 20th victory over a BCS school dating to 2003.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been this thrilled going into a season with the young men we’ve got coming back and the work they’re put in,” said Niumatalo, who returns 13 of 22 starters from the team that reached the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl while winning the Commander in Chief’s Trophy. “We’re as talented as we’ve ever been. [But] if you ever feel like you’ve arrived, that you’ve got all the answers, you’re in trouble.”
Reynolds, who chose Navy over Air Force and Wofford, sounds like his coach when downplaying his achievements.
“I watched a few games from last year and I’m like, ‘What were you thinking?’ “ said the political science major with aspirations of becoming a pilot. “Some of the reads I made, I can’t make the same mistakes this year because teams [will be better prepared for me]. I’m definitely not satisfied with going 8-5 and the way the bowl game turned out. I feel like I have a lot to improve upon. Coming in as the starter makes your preparation that much tougher. I really push myself to try to be the best in everything. I feel like a starting quarterback should be in the best shape, should be the strongest, should be in the film room the most, should be leading the guys.”
As for the guys in Navy blue and gold, after facing Indiana, which they edged last year, they’ll be favored to beat Delaware before starting a string of six straight games against 2012 bowl participants that’s capped by the toughest contest at No. 14 Notre Dame. However, Toledo is the only one of the others that had a better record than Navy last year.
With Air Force unpredictable and Army still down, a ninth Commander in Chief’s Trophy in 11 years and 10th bowl invitation during that span are more than possible, especially if Reynolds delivers at least a repeat performance in his first full year as the starting quarterback.
“There’s a little more confidence in ourselves and each other, but we know we’ve got our work cut out for us, that we’ve got to work hard,” Aiken said. “That’s our culture. That’s Navy football.”
After producing just two winning season from 1983-2002, that culture has now generated expectations of success in Annapolis each fall.
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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin