Bucking its traditional triple-option alignment, the Navy football team’s offense opened the first scrimmage of training camp early this month by lining up with two wide receivers to either side of starting quarterback Keenan Reynolds.
The sophomore gathered the snap, dropped back and, after quickly surveying the field, delivered a strike to a teammate running an out pattern toward the right sideline. Several plays later, Reynolds floated a pass into the arms of a slotback who had sneaked behind the second wave of defenders in the middle of the field.
Other highlights for Reynolds that afternoon included drive-extending completions on third down while escaping pass rushers and deep throws and timing patterns to the corner. In all, Reynolds completed 13 of 15 attempts.
It was a performance that underscored why Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper have decided to tinker with Navy’s long-established triple-option attack this season, installing multiple-receiver packages and spread formations.
“He’s a great passer,” Niumatalolo said of Reynolds. “He gets rid of the football. He’s got great feet, great accuracy, and I feel like he just opens up the field a little bit more. We want to still be able to run our triple option but be able to throw the football.”
Since then-coach Paul Johnson introduced the triple option in 2002, the Midshipmen have ranked no worse than sixth nationally in rushing and played in nine bowl games. They’ve finished first in rushing five times, including amassing a program-record 348.8 yards per game in 2007.
Last season, the Midshipmen were sixth nationally in rushing, but with Reynolds taking over as the full-time starter after coming off the bench to direct a comeback win against Air Force on Oct. 6, Navy’s passing attack flourished.
In the first four starts of his career, all wins, Reynolds compiled eight passing touchdowns and completed 58 percent of his throws. By the end of the regular season, it became clear Reynolds was primed to handle more responsibility.
So Niumatalolo, Jasper and the rest of the offensive staff began discussing how best to diversify the offense without sacrificing what can make the triple option supremely confounding for opponents.
“We’re going to make sure that we keep our identity, but at the same time, we’ve got to do some things to help ourselves,” Jasper said. “If there’s an easy way of getting 10 yards, we’ve got to find ways of doing it. We’re going to grind it out and play Navy football, but we’re going to find ways to make it easy on ourselves and make people defend us in a lot more ways than just coming up and crowding the line of scrimmage.”
When the coaching staff relayed its plans to the team, the news was especially exhilarating for the wide receivers. That group usually is asked to pay more attention to blocking than catching the ball in an offense that rarely reaches double-digit pass attempts in a game.
As the most athletic among the wide receivers this year, Lynch stands to gain perhaps more than any other player from the infusion of pass plays. The converted safety caught 13 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown last year, and his average per catch (20.1) was the highest among Navy players with more than one reception.
“It will give us more opportunities, maybe change up our tendencies a little bit,” Lynch said of the modifications to the passing game. “A lot of people think third-and-short we’re going to run the ball. Maybe now we’ll have a couple new pass plays and change it up.”
Such tactics may be of particular benefit near the goal line, where during the triple-option era the Midshipmen have been all but certain to run the ball. Last year, six of Reynolds’s nine touchdown passes came in the red zone.
Reynolds also scored all 10 of his rushing touchdowns last season from inside the 20-yard line, making him that much more difficult to defend the closer Navy gets to the end zone.
“I’m real comfortable in the offense. I love it,” Reynolds said. “We’ve been running it a lot, especially throughout the spring and during camp. Really nothing’s changed. We’re just adding to our arsenal.”