ANNAPOLIS — Noah Copeland remembers a time two years ago when the Navy football team waited for its starting quarterback to speak, and the quarterback, a first-year player from Tennessee named Keenan Reynolds, stayed silent.
“Come on, man,” Copeland told him then. “You’re the quarterback. You have to say something.”
At the time, Reynolds was not merely a freshman. He was a plebe, the lowest rank in the Naval Academy’s hierarchy, the traditional victim of pranks and occasional minion of upperclassmen.
Plebes don’t have many privileges, and they aren’t allowed to say much. It’s an effective system for building officers, but not exactly the best way to build a quarterback.
“We had to tell him,” coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “On the field, the military rankings have to go away.”
Now a junior, Reynolds enters Saturday’s season-opener against Ohio State at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium as a Heisman Trophy candidate and the most dynamic offensive weapon Navy has had in years. He is a national record-holder after running for 31 touchdowns last season, the most in program history and the most by any quarterback in NCAA history.
But perhaps most importantly of all, he is a leader — a smarter, stronger and more vocal version of his plebe self.
“I’m just confident, in a lot of things,” Reynolds said. “Confident on the field, confident in games, confident in the locker room as far as being a vocal leader. And then just confident in the playbook, more knowledgeable about what we do.”
The growth took time. When Reynolds made his collegiate debut against Air Force in the fifth game of his freshman season, he didn’t have a complete grasp of the team’s complex triple-option offense, nor an understanding of how to lead his veteran teammates. He looked around the huddle and saw players who were three or four years older than he was, those who had “been through the fire.”
“And it was a tough role for me,” Reynolds said, “trying to find my place as a leader among so many great leaders.”
Reynolds led the Midshipmen to an overtime win over the Falcons, then started his first game against Central Michigan the following week. He was the first plebe to start at quarterback since 1991 and just the third to do so in program history.
“I think what he did was he earned their respect first, which shows you what kind of leader he is,” Niumatalolo said. “He didn’t try to come in here and say, ‘Hey, I’m the quarterback, give me the respect.’ He earned it. And I think guys gave it to him freely because he earned it.”
Reynolds put together one of the most prolific sophomore seasons in program history last year, rushing for 1,346 yards and passing for 1,057. He accounted for 39 touchdowns in 13 games, including seven rushing touchdowns in a win over San Jose State.
As his national profile grew, he maintained a simple philosophy: work hard and let the everything else take care of itself.