It wasn’t but two or three questions into Keenan Reynolds’s first round of interviews at the beginning of training camp earlier this week when a reporter asked the Navy quarterback whether he felt his name belongs in the discussion for the Heisman Trophy.
“I’ll let you all worry about that,” the junior said.
Reynolds put himself in the conversation by rushing for 31 touchdowns last season, setting an NCAA record for quarterbacks and a school record for any position. More important to his teammates are the five game-winning drives in the fourth quarter Reynolds has directed since taking over as the full-time starter five games into his freshman year.
Reynolds looked sharp again during the first two days of practice, zipping quick outs with accuracy and delivering longer throws with a touch befitting one of the most skilled passers to run the triple option. His evolution from virtual unknown to dark-horse Heisman contender is at the top of Coach Ken Niumatalolo’s list of reasons it’s challenging at times to keep his enthusiasm in check.
Navy completed last season 9-4, won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the ninth time in 11 years, extended its series-record winning streak against Army to 12 and won its eighth bowl game in school history.
“It’s that time of the year where I think every team starts with a lot of optimism and hope,” Niumatalolo said during media day Saturday morning at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, “but I don’t know in all of my years of coaching if I’ve ever been as excited about a season, about a team, about a group of young men than I have this year.”
The confidence throughout the locker room and coaching staff isn’t only because of Reynolds, either. The Midshipmen also bring back their entire starting offensive line, three fullbacks, including senior co-captain Noah Copeland, and three slot backs on an offense that finished second in the country in rushing last season (325.4 yards per game) for its highest ranking since 2008.
Senior co-captain and free safety Parrish Gaines is the anchor on a defense that limited eight of 13 opponents last season below their scoring averages, most notably Army and Middle Tennessee State in the final two games of the season. The Black Knights averaged 24.4 points per game but scored seven against Navy, and the Midshipmen held Middle Tennessee State to 23 points below its average in a 24-6 win in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Then there’s the continuity among Navy’s coaching staff. Seven of its 10 assistants have been with the program at least a decade, making Navy the only program with that distinction.
“We love coming to work,” Niumatalolo said. “We’re not punching the clock. We’re not looking up and saying, ‘Okay, I’ve got to get there by 7:30.’ You just wake up chomping at the bit getting ready to come to work. Our guys recognize this is a great place to be and you coach great people. The grass isn’t always greener. There’s BCS schools, and different things that happen, but I know our guys love working here.”
Over the rest of training camp and practices at the end of the month, Navy’s task is to be ready for Ohio State in the season opener Aug. 30 at M&T Bank Stadium. The Midshipmen have opened against other traditional powers such as Notre Dame, but Niumatalolo called this year’s first opponent the most daunting in program history.
The Buckeyes went 12-0 during the regular season in 2013 before losing to Michigan State, 34-24, in the Big Ten championship game and to Clemson, 40-35, in the Orange Bowl.
“The sky’s the limit when it comes to this season,” Gaines said. “It’s really in our hands, how we approach camp, and we listen to our coaches and how we respond to adversity, which is true in every season, but with our workouts and our great summer, we’re on our way to a promising season.”