- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 28, 2014

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.

By the end of October, Navy was 3-0 with him under center. And as Reynolds continued to win, his place as a leader solidified.

“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.

“At the end of the day, action is seen,” Reynolds said. “You can talk, you can yell, you can be [making] a lot of hoopla, be very vocal. But if you’re not producing, nobody’s going to follow you. They’re just going to hear what you say and move on.”

Always a leader by example, Reynolds enters this season also focused on leading with his words. He is not a team captain, but he has been noticeably more vocal in practice, Niumatalolo said. That emphasis has both carried over into the locker room and brought another level of clarity and command to the field.

“He’ll get us into the right play, time management with the game clock and whatever we need to do,” Copeland said. “He knows all the calls, he knows the receivers’ routes, he knows everything on the offense. He can see that and check us into the right play.”

The Heisman talk surrounding Reynolds has picked up as Saturday’s game has approached. Roger Staubach, who was Navy’s last Heisman winner in 1963, told USA Today this week that Reynolds “should be in that conversation.” And others, including 1995 winner Eddie George, have passed along their own advice for navigating the hype.

George met Reynolds‘ father, Donnie, at a youth football league in which Donnie Reynolds coaches and George’s son plays. His words of wisdom? “Just play. I just played. I didn’t think about it.”

Reynolds says he’s dealt with the hype in the same way he’s dealt with being a leader: by focusing on his production, and nothing else.

“I could come out on Saturday, lay an egg, and all the Heisman talk, the preseason hype — it’s gone,” Reynolds said. “I accept it. I’m thankful for it. I’m grateful for the attention I’ve received over the offseason. But at the end of the day, I’ve done nothing in 2014.”

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