Notre Dame faces strong test in Navy QB Keenan Reynolds

Bob Wieneke
South Bend Tribune

Even from afar — afar, in this case, being stationed in Bahrain — former Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs knows what a difference current Midshipmen QB Keenan Reynolds makes to the team’s offense.

“He runs it as good as, if not better, than some of the greats,” Dobbs said in an e-mail interview with the Tribune.

From Camp Pendleton near San Diego, where he’s now a logistics officer, former Midshipmen QB Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada marveled at the skill set of Reynolds, now in his third season directing the Navy football team's offense.

“That kid’s got some absolute talent,” Kaheaku-Enhada said as he took a break from a round of golf. “He can play some football.”

Don’t take the words of Dobbs and Kaheaku-Enhada lightly. Not only do both know what it takes to successfully run Navy’s offense, they also know what it takes to beat Notre Dame. Not a lot of Navy quarterbacks over the last half-century can stake that claim.

Kaheaku-Enhada engineered a 46-44 triple-overtime victory in 2007 to snap Notre Dame’s NCAA-record 43-game winning streak over the Midshipmen. Dobbs piloted (perhaps captained would be a better verb) a 23-21 Navy victory two years later at ND Stadium. The following year he scored three touchdowns in what wasn’t just a Navy victory, rather a 35-17 punch in the mouth of Brian Kelly’s first Irish team.

So when both talk up Reynolds, don’t brush it off.

Navy enters Saturday’s game against sixth-ranked Notre Dame (6-1) at 4-4, but the Mids have played part of the season with a banged-up Reynolds, and part of the season without him entirely.

The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Reynolds hurt his knee in the Sept. 6 win over Temple. He did not play the following week, then ran for just 25 yards in a loss to Rutgers. He carried for 121 in a loss to Western Kentucky, and then had just 27 rushing yards in a loss to Air Force.

Reynolds again sat in an Oct. 11 blowout of VMI, and used the bye week to become fully healthy. He shed his knee brace last week as the Midshipmen beat San Jose State 41-31, a game in which Reynolds ran for a career-high 251 yards. In that game, Reynolds ran for three touchdowns, which gave him 52 for his career and moved him past Dobbs for No. 1 on Navy’s career list.

Reynolds, who won’t be available to the media to talk about the ND game until Tuesday, came on in relief two years ago when ND drummed the Midshipen, 50-10 in Dublin, Ireland. Last year, in ND’s 38-34 escape of Navy, Reynolds ran for three touchdowns and threw for another.

Despite the time missed with the injury, Reynolds leads Navy with 639 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. The junior from Antioch, Tenn., will make his 27th career start Saturday night when the Midshipmen play Notre Dame at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.

“He’s pretty much seen everything,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said Monday. “He gets us in the right play.”

It’s Reynolds’ thought process that stands out to Dobbs, now the Operations Officer, Navigator and Legal Officer onboard the USS Sirocco. Prior to leaving the United States late last month for Bahrain, where he’ll be until April 2016, Dobbs shared a few phone conversations with Reynolds about the Navy QB job.

“His decision-making abilities and the way he thinks through plays and situations on an analytical level,” was the reasoning Dobbs gave for Reynolds’ success. “When I played, I acted more off impulse and instincts. He likes to think things through and be prepared for any type of situation that arises.”

What arises for a Navy quarterback doesn’t seem like a lot, considering it’s so run-heavy. But there are decisions to be made on each play. In the triple option, Kaheaku-Enhada said there are two reads — figuring out what the defensive end and tackle are doing.

“That’s about it, from a triple-option perspective,” Kaheaku-Enhada said. “Once you get past that, it’s just taking care of the football.”

Navy, which leads the nation in rushing with an average of 352.3 yards, enters Saturday night’s game having fumbled 14 times, with nine of them lost. Notre Dame, by comparison, has fumbled 11 times with seven lost.

Adding to the dangerous nature of Navy is that Reynolds is considered a better throwing threat than recent Midshipmen QBs. Two seasons ago, in which Reynolds played in all 13 games and started the final eight, Navy threw 172 times, the most it's thrown in a season under seventh-year coach Niumatalolo. Last year it was 146 pass attempts, the third-highest total under Niumatalolo. This season, Navy has thrown 86 times, although the only games they’ve thrown double-digit times came in three of the four losses.

Don't, however, expect to start calling Navy pass-happy.

“We’re not built that way,” Niumatalolo said. “Our linemen aren’t pass-protectors. It’s not our forte.”

Still, Niumatalolo acknowledges that Reynolds can throw, meaning the threat is there, as Reynolds went 6-of-9 with a touchdown last year against the Irish. Just the thought that he could throw helps make Navy that much more dangerous.

“The triple option becomes even more lethal when you have the ability to pass the ball,” Dobbs wrote. “His ability to pass, along with his sound decision making, makes him a dangerous threat.”

“That’s the one thing that I know I couldn’t do, and I wish I could throw the ball," said Kaheaku-Enhada. "But he’s blessed with the ability to sling that football a little bit."

Still, Reynolds’ mind and experience with running the deceptive offense will play a big role if the Midshipmen are to upset the Irish Saturday night.

“You need to know what’s going on with the defense, and you have to know your reads and know your personnel,” Kaheaku-Enhada said. “It’s not something that you can walk off the street and start doing well, that’s for sure.”

And even as successful as Dobbs was, he’s envious of what Reynolds has been able to do, and how he thinks his way through a game.

“I wish,” he wrote, “I thought like him back when I played.”

Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds now holds the school record for touchdowns with 52. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)