Navy QB Keenan Reynolds set for grand finale at Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

Sit back and enjoy as Keenan Reynolds performs his magic at Notre Dame Stadium for the last time Saturday.

It’s OK to admire the poetry and precision that will make Navy’s triple-option offense so difficult for the Irish football team to defend. It doesn’t happen by accident. A symphony of talent, timing, quick decisions and execution come together to make a potentially lethal weapon.

First, the fullback. Then, the pitchman. Then, the quarterback. A dilemma that, when run correctly, can cause a defender’s head to spin.

Reynolds, a 5-foot-11, 205-pound senior, is the only four-year starter at quarterback Navy has ever had during its option era. He’s been running it so long that he probably reads his keys and makes the pitch in his sleep.

Flip to the cool side of the pillow, then run it again.

Seems like he’s be there forever — or at least long enough to get a pension.

The numbers he has accumulated can be staggering: 3,674 career rushing yards; 73 rushing touchdowns, four shy of the NCAA record held by Wisconsin’s Montee Ball; 3,063 passing yards, with 25 TDs; 25-11 as a starter.

It’s a resume that could land a fellow in the Heisman conversation.

Just don’t ask him about any of that.

“It’s a blessing to have that attention,” said Reynolds, whose humility has never wavered. “The biggest thing is to realize it wasn’t anything that I did myself. It’s a team effort. If somebody asks me about it, I use that as an opportunity to glorify my teammates. They’re the reason I have the opportunity to be amongst the company I’m in for the touchdown record, or whatever.”

That’s not just idle blather. That’s the real deal.

It’s intriguing to look inside the helmet for a couple minutes. Saturday, everyone will see the dynamic athlete — maybe the smartest athlete on Notre Dame’s schedule — pick his way through the forest of behemoths on the Irish defense.

But inside the gold headgear is a determined young man, an international relations major at one of the most regimented and disciplined institutions, who found a way to survive.

“The load is a lot lighter (now) than it was as a freshman,” Reynolds said of his journey through the academy. “Upperclassmen were telling us how to get through this place. One thing you have to realize, ‘Everything was not as serious as you think it is.’

“It’s not the end of the world if something doesn’t go your way. A lot of people are very understanding, teachers especially.

“The biggest thing is to not lose your composure if you hit some adversity via the academic route. You can get caught up with losing your cool; freaking out about school. Then, you have somebody remind you, ‘It’s OK; everybody goes through it. You’ll be fine, I promise.’

“It can be done. The balance can be achieved. You can be successful in the classroom and on the field.”

Even after Reynolds was able to convince himself that a poor grade wasn’t the end of the world, a personal battle still waged within. Success on the football field last year didn’t fulfill everything he wanted out of life.

He turned to Joe Taylor, a captain in the U.S. Marines, who followed Reynolds’ path at the academy — minus the accolades and the fanfare.

“My mentor (Taylor) got me back in my faith,” Reynolds said of the 2009 grad, who was a backup quarterback. “I had gotten away from it last year.

“I found someone who could relate to me. He had been at the academy and played quarterback. Our lives are very similar. He had a different perspective.

“Listening to him and re-centering myself helped me a lot last year. We’re always in contact. We go over the Bible, spiritual stuff, and talk about life. He’s always there for advice.

“Last year, I got too wound up in (football). I had to get back to center, what I know. I realized that I’m playing this game because I love it and it’s fun. You get back to that and you can go out, enjoy the game, and be successful at the same time.”

That’s what will make Reynolds even more dangerous Saturday — on top of it all, he’s having fun.

Navy will take advantage of Reynolds’ four years of experience. The Midshipmen will throw the kitchen sink at the Irish defense — running a multitude of formations — daring them to try to stop it.

“We know we’ve got our hands full to stop a very potent offensive attack,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “(Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo) does a great job of utilizing multiple formations, multiple looks in running their offense. Obviously, the quarterback has played against us for four years. We’re very aware of him and have a great deal of respect for the naval academy and what they represent.

“Ken is incredible in terms of the formations. What they do that is different from Georgia Tech is formations. A myriad of formations. I mean, too many to count. Now, their base is triple-option. They’re going to operate out of their base, and there will be counter option, and there will be lead toss. The tenets of triple-option is the base, and they’re going to throw the football, and there’s going to be some gadget plays within it.

“But it’s formationing you in so many different ways that you have to look at all of those things and get into the right defensive looks because it becomes a numbers game if you’re not in the right defensive alignments.”

“(The variety of formations) is definitely different,” Reynolds said of the wrinkles this year. “I don’t think it’s because of me. It’s just the way that our offense has developed over the years. We’ve subtracted some things. We’ve added some more things.

“This is a product of time, change, and always trying to get better.”

“I’ve always said that it’s his decision making,” Niumatalolo said of what makes Reynolds so dangerous. “He’s a guy that’s able to see what the defense is doing. He always gets us in the right play, so that’s definitely a comfort as a coach.

“He always gets the ball to the right person so it makes sure that you have the proper angles that you want to get. Notre Dame tried a lot of different fronts against Georgia Tech and was successful. Hopefully, for us, we’ve got a veteran quarterback who’s seen it all, so we should get in the right plays if they shift around and try to get in a bunch of different fronts. We have a guy that’s seen everything.”

Notre Dame has had success against Reynolds in the past couple years. He had a cameo appearance in his first game against the Irish, the 2012 season-opener in Dublin (a 50-10 Irish win). As a sophomore (Notre Dame won 38-34), he rushed for 53 yards on 22 carries, but scored three times. Last year (ND prevailed 49-39), he had 47 yards on 18 carries and didn’t score.

“Notre Dame has the best athletes in the country, and they’re all smart,” Reynolds said. “They really understand the option, and they’ve done a good job of neutralizing me as a runner.

“With the option, though, there are other weapons and other people who can be successful. We’ve been successful as a team, on offense, against them; as far as rushing the ball.“

If the defense puts a target on Reynolds’ back, he always has classmate Chris Swain to turn to. While Reynolds has rushed 87 times for 488 yards and nine touchdowns this season, Swain, a 6-1, 245-pound fullback, has 361 yards and four scores on 68 carries.

“Our offense is a lot of ‘feel,’” Reynolds said. “I know where (Swain is) going to be; he knows where I’m going to be. Having a relationship like that just helps our offense mesh.”

“It’s as good as there is out there,” Kelly said of the Navy offensive arsenal. “That’s why they’re so successful and very, very difficult to stop. (Reynolds) can pull that ball out as late as anybody on the read and triple-option. So you have to be really good against them. Nobody’s been good enough over the last eight games that they played. That’s why they’re a difficult team to defend.”

Three weeks ago, the Irish shut down an offense very similar to Navy’s when they put the clamps on Georgia Tech. The challenge to Kelly and Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is to tweak the defense enough to keep the Midshipmen from having a blueprint for the scheme. Navy’s task is to devise a plan that can’t be stopped.

“There’s advantages on both sides,” Kelly said. “Certainly, they’re going to look at the plan we had and dissect that and look at things they can do to attack it. On the other hand, our guys are able to line up in our defense and know their keys and know what to do relative to option.”

“It’s big for us, to have a reference to look at,” Reynolds said. “But, like us, they’ve (had) three days to prepare, so you never know what they’ll come out with.

“We’ve got two packages for most of our stuff. There’s no way for us to know for sure. We’ll prepare the best way we can. If they come out Saturday in something different, we’ll just make adjustments and play.”

One thing’s for sure, Reynolds won’t take his last trip to Notre Dame for granted.

“It’s a storied stadium, a storied program,” Reynolds said. “It’s going to be a big deal, but it’s just football. Nothing has changed. You still play between the white lines. The keys to win are always the same. Understanding the magnitude of the game, and not making it bigger than it is, is important.”

More than 80,000 fans will get a chance to see poetry in motion in person one more time.

Should be worth the price of a ticket.

Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds runs for a long gain during the second quarter against East Carolina during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, in Annapolis, Md. (Paul W. Gillespie/ AP Photo)