Pitch perfect: Keenan Reynolds has been a touchdown maker for the ages while leading Navy to new heights
This story originally appeared in the Dec. 7, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Certain statistics and sections have been updated to reflect the most recent developments. Subscribe to the magazine here.
By some estimates as many as 500 of the 55,212 people who watched Navy play Memphis at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Nov. 7 had a personal connection to Keenan Reynolds, the Midshipmen's senior quarterback. His parents, Donnie and Jackie, were there, of course, as was his 10-year-old brother, Quentin. The family had made the three-hour drive from their hometown of Antioch, Tenn., to watch Keenan play college football for the first and last time in their home state. But no one could accurately count all the rest: extended-family members, friends from church, coaches and teammates from Goodpasture Christian School, old football pals of Donnie's from Tennessee-Martin.
They had come to see Reynolds play and continue Navy's best start to a season since 2004—the Middies were off to a 6–1 start, their only loss on the road to Notre Dame, 41–24. With slightly more than three minutes left and Navy holding a 38–20 lead over the unbeaten, 13th-ranked Tigers, a win wasn't in much doubt. But his supporters had also come to see Reynolds set an all-time FBS record for career rushing touchdowns. He had begun the afternoon tied with former Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball, at 77.
Reynolds hadn't scored yet, but with the ball at the one-yard line, it seemed his time had come. His coach, Ken Niumatalolo, and his offensive coordinator, Ivin Jasper, wanted him to get the record and put a rise into his escalating Heisman bid. They called a sneak. When the 5' 11", 205-pound Reynolds approached the line, though, he saw that his coaches' plans would come as no surprise to Memphis. Nine Tigers were in the box, and every gap was plugged. More than any other scheme, Navy's triple option hinges on the split-second decisions of its quarterback—to hand the ball off to the fullback, to pitch it to one of two wingbacks or to keep it—and Reynolds had ably and selflessly guided that attack, making the correct calls play in and play out for the better part of four years. Now, in the eyes of everyone screaming for him from the stands and on the sideline, it was time for Reynolds to do something for himself.
Niumatalolo, a 50-year-old native of Hawaii, has a rare claim to fame: He is the all-time leader in victories at the same school that once fired him as its offensive coordinator. Niumatalolo often drives by the McDonald's near the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., at which coach Charlie Weatherbie ambushed him over breakfast following the 1998 season. "I'd become a coordinator at 29, thought I had all the answers," Niumatalolo says.
The clash originated with Niumatalolo's steadfast belief in the triple option—the flexbone—that his mentor, Paul Johnson, had implemented at Georgia Southern. His faith in the attack eventually won out. In December 2001, Johnson succeeded Weatherbie as the Middies' coach and brought Niumatalolo back as the assistant head coach. In '07, when Johnson left for Georgia Tech, Niumatalolo took the reins.
The run-based, clock-chewing flexbone is particularly well-suited to Navy. It is complicated and requires selflessness, discipline and the ability to think quickly and analytically—all qualities that Midshipmen typically possess. It also presents an unusual look to defenses, adding an element of surprise that helps the service academy's players remain competitive even though they often can't match the athleticism of their opponents.
Reynolds proved one of those rare top-level recruits for whom Navy represented a perfect fit. Although bigger programs liked him at other positions, his size and his insistence on playing quarterback cut his genuine suitors to three: Navy, Air Force and Wofford. "I could have easily gone to a school like Wofford—great academics, played quarterback, who knows what would have happened," Reynolds says. "Have all the freedom in the world. Party, do whatever you want. I had fun on my visit. But when I was thinking about my decision, I was thinking about 20, 30 years down the road."
More immediately he had to transition from his high school shotgun spread to the triple option. It helped that he and Donnie, a safety in college, had been breaking down tapes of Keenan's games since he was nine. "A lot of dads talk about how they coached their sons, and you listen to them," says Niumatalolo. "Most of them don't know what they're talking about. Donnie does." Keenan became the starter for the sixth game of his freshman year. "We've had a lot of good option quarterbacks here," says Niumatalolo. "He's the best."
Choosing to attend Navy, though, meant more than grasping a complicated offense. Reynolds's disciplined personality allowed him to adapt to the academy's demands off the field as well. "Everybody talks about how his mama did such a good job raising him," says Jackie. "But the reality was, Keenan was easy. It's hard for me to accept credit when he's just always done the right thing."
He arrived—on the dot—for a scheduled 11 a.m. interview on the day before Thanksgiving but admitted, "I'm always plotting when I can get a nap in." At other FBS campuses, athletes reside in cushy, specially designed dorms; when Reynolds naps he does it on a twin bed, lofted above his desk, in a room that he shares with two other Midshipmen. He has gotten to sleep more this semester because, he says, "academically, my load is a lot lighter than it has been in the past."
That means Reynolds is currently taking only six classes: financial analysis, national security decision-making in the cyber age, politics of irregular warfare, political philosophy, sports economics and—to satisfy his physical-education requirement—tennis. "I think I've got good feet," Reynolds says of his skills on the court. "That's what saves me." His tennis class had begun that morning at 6:45.
Those who supported Reynolds's Heisman candidacy—he was not named a finalist for the award— pointed to the award's character clause. "Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance and hard work," the Heisman Trust's mission statement reads, in part, and perhaps no college football player better embodies those last three attributes. But Reynolds's ability shouldn't be overlooked. The No. 21 Midshipmen, who are 9–2, rank near the bottom of the FBS in total possessions but are 17th in scoring at 37.5 points per game—a stunning efficiency that can be attributed to their quarterback. "He's always getting us into the right play, and the ball always goes to the right person," says Niumatalolo. And while Reynolds's 1,093 rushing yards rank 39th in FBS, Navy is second with 330.1 yards per game on the ground thanks to the reads he makes on nearly every snap. He has thrown the ball only 84 times this year, but he has been intercepted just once.
In fact, Niumatalolo believes that Reynolds, who has a strong arm and runs 4.5 in the 40, is a potential NFL quarterback. "You look at someone like Russell Wilson," says Niumatalolo. "I think if Keenan's in the right system—Seattle stuff, Chip Kelly stuff—I think he could play in the league."
Of course, a Midshipman is obligated to perform five years of service after graduation, unless he receives a special waiver. "I think every kid that puts on pads wants to play at the highest level," Reynolds says. "It's definitely a dream of mine. But I'm very aware of what I signed up for. I'm kind of taking it day by day. If the opportunity arises and I'm allowed to pursue it, then I will." Two weeks ago Reynolds tweeted, "Got my first choice, Information Warfare!," a postgraduation assignment that's as techie and secretive as it sounds.
In any event, he has a few things to take care of before focusing on his long-term future, particularly a date this Saturday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. Reynolds will try to win his fourth straight game over Army (4–7), and to give Navy an unprecedented 14th consecutive win over its rival.
Keenan Reynolds would become the FBS's all-time leader in rushing touchdowns on a four-yard run in the first quarter of Navy's game against SMU, on Nov. 14. In that Memphis game, Reynolds had checked out of the sneak. "I usually try to find the soft spot in a defense," Reynolds explains. "There was no soft spot. So it was kind of a no-brainer to check to a toss play."
Reynolds pitched the ball to senior running back Demond Brown, who sauntered in to cement a 45–20 victory. "What we called was a good play," says Niumatalolo. "But he wanted the best play."
In the stands Reynolds's family was confused, until he explained after the game what happened. "Actually, I felt prouder of the decision he made than I think I would have been if he had gotten the record," says Jackie.
On the sideline Niumatalolo embraced the quarterback who had taken his offense, and Navy football, to renewed heights. Said Niumatalolo, into Reynolds's ear, "That's why you are who you are."