Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo made the bold decision to start a freshman at quarterback six games into last season, and the move resulted in four consecutive victories that helped push the Midshipmen to a bowl game after one year off and reclaim the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy following a two-year hiatus.
So when Niumatalolo indicated he would be prudent with Keenan Reynolds during the offseason in order to protect the team’s most valuable asset, part of that plan includes prohibiting the rookie of the year among Football Bowl Subdivision independents from taking live snaps in spring practice or perhaps even participating in the spring game.
Navy begins spring practice Monday in Annapolis coming off its 10th winning season in 11 years thanks in large part to Reynolds, who was the third freshman in program history to start at quarterback and first since 1991. He finished 6-2 as a starter, including a 17-13 victory over Army. He also came off the bench to orchestrate a 28-21 overtime win against Air Force.
“I’ve seen him play. I know what he can do,” Niumatalolo said of Reynolds. “We don’t want to put him in there just to prove something.”
But Reynolds’s accuracy (56.5 completion percentage) and knack for completing throws on the move have compelled Niumatalolo to explore more options in the passing game. He and his assistants have been visiting with coaches from programs that employ spread principles and the shotgun formation, and although Niumatalolo declined to reveal which programs he’s spoken with, he said playing faster could be in Navy’s immediate future.
That’s not to say the Midshipmen are scrapping the base triple-option offense that has allowed them to be competitive with and in some cases beat schools from power conferences. Winning time of possession and rushing yards continue to be core principles in Navy’s offensive philosophy, but forcing opponents to have to prepare for a more diverse set of plays makes the triple option that much more difficult to defend.
“It’s out of our comfort zone as a staff,” Niumatalolo said. “Obviously we’re an option team, so we’ve had to expand and try to increase our knowledge to make sure we put ourselves in the best position to be successful. I mean we’re not going to just do things to do them. We’re trying to do things that help us, so I’m excited this spring to see what it looks like.”
With Reynolds’s participation during the spring to be limited, Navy will go with a rotation of two quarterbacks taking live snaps: juniors Trey Miller and John Hendrick. Miller started the first five games last season but had issues with turnovers, and Hendrick played in one game.
There’s a chance, according to Niumatalolo, that Miller moves to slotback if Hendrick develops enough that the coaching staff feels comfortable with him as the primary backup quarterback. The current group of slotbacks is the least experienced in several years, although Darius Staten and Geoffrey Whiteside, both first on the spring depth chart at the position, each played in at least a dozen games last season.
The Midshipmen also are without slotback Marcus Thomas for the spring because of academic reasons. The senior played in 12 games last season and served as the primary kick returner.
“All those guys are guys that we feel like got all the tools, that can run, block, catch the ball,” Niumatalolo said. “So in the spring there’s going to be a lot of, well we’re experimenting a lot this spring.”