After the Navy football team beat Pittsburgh in the Military Bowl in late December to set the program record for wins in a season, outgoing senior quarterback Keenan Reynolds’s emotional locker room speech included a nod to his backup, Tago Smith.
Reynolds told Smith the offense was in his hands and encouraged him to leave his own imprint while paying no mind to the inevitable comparisons that come with following the most statistically accomplished player in school history.
As training camp begins, Smith still hasn’t been able to escape being asked about replacing Reynolds, whose record-setting career places him in the company of Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach as the Midshipmen’s most storied quarterbacks.
In fact, the first question directed to Smith during the team’s media day on Saturday morning at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium was if he has Reynolds fatigue.
“No, I’m not sick of it,” said Smith, a senior. “It’s expected. [Reynolds] had so much success here. But I don’t think it’ll be that hard of a transition. I’ve seen him have success here. It’s just a matter of taking those keys away from him, seeing what he’s done and just making it transfer over to my game.”
Working in Smith’s favor is, among other components, a familiarity with the triple option over the past three years. Smith, who began his career at Navy as a slotback, has played in 18 games with two starts, both two years ago when Reynolds was hurt.
The first start of his career came against Texas State on Sept. 13, 2014. Smith rushed for two touchdowns and passed for two more to lead a 35-21 victory on the road for his only win against a major college football opponent. His other triumph came over lower-division Virginia Military Institute, 51-14, on Oct. 11, 2014, in Annapolis.
Last season Smith appeared in eight games, scoring his only touchdown on an eight-yard run during a 55-14 win against Southern Methodist that was part of a historic year. Navy went 11-2, reached No. 15 in the College Football Playoff poll, won an unprecedented third consecutive bowl game and extended its series-record winning streak over Army to 14 in a row. Reynolds finished the season as major college football’s all-time career leader in total touchdowns (88), rushing yards by a quarterback (4,559) and points scored (530).
“I think it helps a ton that he’s seen Keenan the last three years,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “I think it helps a ton that he’s being coached by the same guy [offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper] that coached Keenan who’s a really, really good football coach, and he has the talent. He’s a talented kid. We’ve seen it, and it’s his time.”
Smith is the fourth senior to become a first-time regular starting quarterback at Navy since the Midshipmen began deploying the triple option in 2002. The last was Kriss Proctor in 2011, when Navy went 5-7. That was the only year since Niumatalolo took over as head coach the Midshipmen failed to qualify for a bowl game.
In 2005, when Niumatalolo and Jasper were offensive assistants under Paul Johnson, Lamar Owens passed for 1,299 yards with six touchdowns and rushed for 880 yards and 11 touchdowns in his only season as the full-time starting quarterback. The Midshipmen went 8-4 and won the Poinsettia Bowl, 51-30, over Colorado State.
The previous year, fledgling full-time starter Aaron Polanco accounted for 24 touchdowns and 2,111 yards combined rushing and passing to lead the Midshipmen to a 10-2 record, at the time the most wins in one season at Navy during the modern era.
“Honestly I just worry about what I can control,” Smith said. “Keenan was Keenan. I’m me. It’s just a matter of doing what I need to do and executing.”
Even though his in-game experience is somewhat limited, Smith has had plenty of opportunity to fine-tune his reads as part of Navy’s rushing attack that was ranked No. 2 in the country each of the last three years.
Because the Midshipmen regularly have upward of 150 players on the roster, both the starting and backup quarterbacks receive roughly the same number of reps in practice, with the first- and second-team offenses facing scout-team defenses.
Navy opened training camp on Wednesday, and Smith has gone through four practices so far. He also participated in another dozen or so workouts during spring practice.
“I’m expecting him to be flawless,” Jasper said. “He’s 2-0 as a starter. He’s played. He’s a great athlete. He understands what’s going on. Now it’s my job to make sure that he understands it more. He’s a Jedi now, but we’ve got to get him to that Yoda status where Keenan was.”