Until the morning of Aug. 4, a photo of former NFL quarterback Steve McNair served as the wallpaper background on Keenan Reynolds’ cell phone. But a sudden urge for change overcame the senior quarterback from the U.S. Naval Academy – right there in Newport, R.I., in the hustle and bustle of the American Athletic Conference media day.
“I’m a huge Steve McNair fan,” Reynolds said in an apologetic tone.
So what could trump McNair’s rank and replace the boyhood idol of Navy’s offensive leader? How about a photo of a trophy?
To be precise, it was a photo of the AAC football championship trophy. The hardware was on display throughout media days in Newport. The first championship in AAC history will be determined Dec. 5, when the regular season champs from the conference’s two division meet.
And since Navy is playing in a conference for the first time in its long and storied football history, this is kind of a big deal to the Midshipmen.
“Being able to play for a conference championship, that really changed the game,” said Reynolds, a senior from Antioch, Tenn. “It’s up to us. We control our own destiny. If we win all our games, and win the conference, we have the opportunity to go to one of those big bowl games.”
It should comes as no surprise that Reynolds has set these goals heading into his final season in Annapolis. He has accomplished almost everything else in his first three seasons. Reynolds has an opportunity to rewrite the NCAA and Navy record books. His coach, Ken Niumatalolo, in his eighth season at Navy, has full confidence that Reynolds can direct the Midshipmen to a special season.
“He’s as good now as any triple-option quarterback I’ve ever been around,” Niumatalolo said.
If you haven’t heard of Reynolds, you will hear his name mentioned quite a bit this season.
Reynolds enters his senior season with this checklist:
— Having rushed for 3,186 yards and 64 touchdowns, and throwing for 1,798 yards and 23 touchdowns.
— His 3,186 career rushing yards are the third most in school history. He is 994 yards short of passing record holder Napoleon McCallum.
— Reynolds ranks 17th in NCAA history for rushing yards by a quarterback. He needs 1,310 yards to get past Michigan’s Denard Robinson to become the all-time leader.
— His 64 rushing TDs are the most in school history, the most in NCAA history by a quarterback and are tied for fourth most in NCAA history.
— He needs 14 more touchdowns to pass record holder Montee Ball of Wisconsin.
At 5-11, 195 pounds and dressed in his Navy whites, Reynolds doesn’t have the look of a quarterback when you pass him on the street. He can throw the football. The fact is that doesn’t happen often in Navy’s triple-option offense.
Most recruiters passed on him because of his size – even though he has been playing quarterback since he was 5.
Reynolds chose Navy over Wofford and Air Force. (He’s 5-1 in Service Academy games, including three wins over Army.) He will tell you the reasons he picked Navy were for the free education, to serve his country, to have a job over school – and, finally, to play Division I football.
Niumatalolo says sometimes it pays to be blind to the “physical measurables” and likens Reynolds to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
“They never tested his brain or heart,” he said. “It’s the same thing with Keenan. He’s 5-10 or 5-11. But I’ve always thought the greatest tool of a quarterback is his mind. And the guy is as sharp as I’ve ever been around.”
Reynolds calls the triple-option “very tricky to learn, but if you’re dedicated it’s not too difficult. If you talk in three hours of meetings a day, you’re going to remember stuff. Making mistakes, misreads, getting tackled helped me to push forward as a freshman. It really took me the whole year to get comfortable. I’m just trying to master it now.”
Navy becomes a difficult team to prepare for, just because of the rarity of the triple option. All those AAC defenses that haven’t seen it before will struggle, especially in this first season. The teams that play Navy on a regular basis have found wrinkles, using movement on defense, to confuse the Midshipmen.
Reynolds enjoys the challenge.
“The only people I feel can stop us is ourselves,” he said. “The best way to learn is to make those mistakes. You might get grilled [by the coaching staff] or barbequed as we say. But they’re coaching the heck out of us up there [in the press box]. I love it.
“The challenge of figuring out that offense is what we call drinking from a fire hose. There’s a lot coming at you at one time. You’ve got to be able to digest it. It’s all about reps [in practice]. That allows you to get better in this offense.”
He may be small in stature, but Reynolds stands tall as a leader on this Navy team. On a roster full of standout men, that’s saying something.
“When you come from a school where you have leaders amongst leaders, you have to stand out,” Niumatalolo said. “His leadership is to lead by example. He isn’t one of those guys who says, ‘Hey, I don’t do this’ or ‘I don’t do that run.’ He does everything, just like everybody else. Dresses like everybody else. He’s one of the guys. I think that has given him great credence and great power in our locker room.”