Led by Keenan Reynolds, Navy football has high hopes entering opener vs. Ohio State


Keenan Reynolds, shown at practice earlier this month, set an NCAA single-season record for quarterbacks with 31 rushing touchdowns as a sophomore last year. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

No player in the history of Navy athletics invokes as much reverence at the academy as Roger Staubach. The 1963 Heisman Trophy winner was a national phenomenon during one of the program’s most prosperous eras, and the NFL Hall of Famer has his own trophy case in Ricketts Hall around the corner from the auditorium where the football team conducts meetings.

It’s an indication, then, of the Midshipmen’s hopes for this season when junior quarterback Keenan Reynolds is mentioned in the same breath.

“Like I’ve said before, I’m sure the offensive linemen who blocked for Roger Staubach remember playing for him,” senior right guard Jake Zuzek said when asked about his quarterback’s special qualities. “This is something all of us guys are never going to forget.”

Navy is taking aim at perhaps a season for the ages as well in its final year as an independent before joining the American Athletic Conference. Reynolds’s record-setting 2013 has elevated him to a dark-horse candidate for the Heisman, and he and his team have the opportunity to open the campaign with a bang Saturday against fifth-ranked Ohio State at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

When college football’s initial top 25 rankings were released less than two weeks ago, the Midshipmen received votes in the AP poll, underscoring the program’s foray into the sport’s national landscape with what Coach Ken Niumatalolo calls the most talented team he’s been around in 17 years in Annapolis.

The Post Sports Live crew predicts which four college football teams will make the first playoffs for the new system. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

Niumatalolo’s optimism stems from the many players back from last year, when Navy won nine games, beat Army, claimed the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and won a bowl game . No service academy team has been able to check off all those accomplishments in consecutive years, but this group has an eye toward history.

“Talent-wise, I know we’re as skilled as we’ve ever been,” said Niumatalolo, who enters his seventh full season in Annapolis needing seven wins to become the school’s all-time leader. “But that doesn’t mean anything unless you produce on the field. We like our pieces, and hopefully they fit together.”

It all starts with Reynolds, who has been unflappable in the face of long odds from the first time he stepped onto the field as a freshman. Inserted in the fourth quarter on the road against Air Force that season, Navy’s most indispensable player directed a rally from an eight-point deficit to force overtime before an eventual 28-21 victory.

Reynolds orchestrated three fourth-quarter comebacks in 2012 and began elbowing his way into the conversation of greatest players in Navy history last year by piling up wins while setting multiple records. Among the most notable were seven rushing touchdowns in a 58-52 overtime win against San Jose State and 31 rushing touchdowns overall to establish an NCAA single-season record for quarterbacks.

Reynolds is the centerpiece of an offense that ranked second nationally in rushing in 2013. The Midshipmen (9-4 last season) averaged their most rushing yards per game (325.4) since 2007, and their 50 rushing touchdowns were the most in the country. Navy also ran for 300 yards in six straight games, including 366 during a 24-6 win against Middle Tennessee State in the Armed Forces Bowl.

Six of Navy’s top seven rushers from last year are back with the team. Three of those are fullbacks, and the Midshipmen have a rotation of four regular slotbacks, leading with senior Geoffrey Whiteside and junior DeBrandon Sanders.

“I think the sky’s the limit when it comes to our season,” said senior safety Parrish Gaines, whose 65 tackles were fourth on the team. “It’s really in our hands and how we take it, how we listen to coaches, how we respond to adversity.”

It’s not just the Midshipmen’s prolific rushing attack that has the campus buzzing. Navy’s defense held nine of 13 opponents last year below their regulation scoring average, and two of those were BCS schools Indiana and Pittsburgh.

Seven starters are back for a unit that ranked 37th out of 123 FBS teams in fewest passing yards allowed and 40th in fewest points. Gaines in particular was a major contributor after starting at cornerback for the first six games and playing the final seven at safety.

Teammates so respected Gaines for his on-field moxie and locker room presence that they voted him one of two captains, the highest honor a Navy football player can receive. The other captain is senior starting fullback Noah Copeland, who along with Reynolds and many other teammates has embraced the historical possibilities this year has to offer.

“I mean that’s on us,” Reynolds said. “We’re got to come out here, and we’ve got to grind in the weight room, we’ve got to grind in the meeting room. If we do all that, then we can have that season, but if we become complacent and we lose that humble and hungry attitude, then we’ll have problems.”

Gene Wang is a sports reporter covering multiple beats, including Navy football, the Capitals, Wizards, Nationals, women’s basketball, auto racing, boxing and golf. He also covers Fantasy Football.

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