From Under-Recruited QB to All-American Hero: The Keenan Reynolds Story

Justin Ferguson@@JFergusonBRCFB National AnalystDecember 11, 2015

Navy QB Keenan Reynolds
Navy QB Keenan ReynoldsBob Levey/Getty Images

The record-breaking career of Navy senior quarterback Keenan Reynolds can be best explained through the play he's mastered over the last four years—the option.

It's what he ran when he made college football history November 14.

Four yards away from the end zone early in a game against SMU, Reynolds faked a handoff to fullback Chris Swain and plunged over the goal line. That option run gave Reynolds his 78th career rushing touchdown—the most in the history of major college football.

The option is overlooked and underutilized as the basis of an offense in college football. Reynolds knows what that feels like. He didn't have a single star to his name as a high school recruit and could count his scholarship offers on one hand.

The option is also physically and mentally taxing, demanding grinding runs and split-second calls from its quarterback. Reynolds has taken on that football wear and tear in addition to his military training at one of the toughest schools in the world.

"To play quarterback in this offense, you have to enjoy making the reads and taking the contact," Reynolds told Bleacher Report. "You've got to enjoy the 15-play touchdown drive that takes nine minutes off the clock. You've got to be physical. You've got to have that savvy. And you've got to love all of it."

Keenan Reynolds' NCAA and Navy Records
NCAA Records
Career Rushing Touchdowns83
Career Touchdowns from Scrimmage83 (tied)
Career Points Scored500
Single-Season Rushing Touchdowns for a QB31 in 2013
Navy Records
Career Rushing Yards4,279
Career Rushing Attempts932
Career Passing Touchdowns29 (tied)
Career Wins30
Career Points Responsible For674
Career Interception Percentage.019
Single-Game Rushing Yards277
Navy Athletics

That attitude has been key to the creation of college football's most unlikely legend, an under-recruited quarterback from a small academy in Tennessee who now has a place among the all-time greats.

At Goodpasture Christian School in Madison, Tennessee, Reynolds quarterbacked his team to the state semifinals as a freshman and to the Class 3A state championship game as a junior. 

Reynolds combined for more than 3,000 all-purpose yards as a senior.

Despite all of his high school accomplishments, Reynolds' 5'11" frame kept many colleges from recruiting him at quarterback. In-state schools Memphis and Vanderbilt reached out to him about the possibility of moving him to receiver, but their interest never materialized in any scholarship offers.

But size didn't stop Ken Niumatalolo and his staff at Navy, located some 700 miles northeast of Goodpasture. They saw a winning quarterback.

"As I watched his tape, I was stunned," Niumatalolo told Bleacher Report. "Why wasn't this kid getting recruited more? ... And [Navy assistant Ashley Ingram] told me, 'Coach, it's his size. That's it.' Well, if that was it, he could definitely play for us."

Navy QB Keenan Reynolds and HC Ken Niumatalolo
Navy QB Keenan Reynolds and HC Ken NiumataloloPatrick Semansky/Associated Press

To Ingram, Reynolds' lead recruiter and Navy's running game coordinator, the on-field success was easy to see. But what won him over was the way the high school quarterback carried himself off the field.

"The first time I talked to him...I knew there was something special about him as a person," Ingram told Bleacher Report. "The look in his eye and the way he addressed people, I could just tell there was something about this kid that was different."

Navy recruited Reynolds heavily over the last two years of his high school career, joining Air Force and two FCS programs—Wofford and UT-Martin—as the only ones to offer him a scholarship to play quarterback.

Reynolds immediately gravitated toward the two military academies. The opportunity to serve his country with his life after football was, in his words, "a huge deal" for his future. On the field, Reynolds' goal was to become a starting quarterback as a true freshman.

But Navy had never had one of those under Niumatalolo.

"There was some concern—and we really laugh about it now—from Keenan's mom and dad about how we had really never had a freshman quarterback start in our offense," Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper told Bleacher Report. "They asked about that, and I think they thought it was some kind of rule we had here. We told them, 'No, it's not a rule. It's just that we've never had a kid who could come in and do it.'

"And I remember his mom telling me, 'Well, my son is going to do it.'"

With mom Jackie and dad Donnie by his side, Reynolds announced his decision to go to Navy over Air Force on national signing day in February 2012—an under-the-radar event for a zero-star quarterback who would later make college football history.

"When I took my visit, Navy just felt like home with the coaches and the players and the atmosphere," Reynolds said. "Then you add in the Army-Navy game, getting to play Notre Dame every year...Navy just sounded like more of where I wanted to be."

Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium
Navy-Marine Corps Memorial StadiumRob Carr/Getty Images

Not long after signing with Navy, Reynolds made a surprising choice that would go a long way in his preparation toward becoming a record-breaking quarterback.

It was spring break of his senior year at Goodpasture, and he was out of school for an entire week. While some of his friends opted to go to the beach in Florida, Reynolds went a completely direction and spent his entire spring break in Maryland at the United States Naval Academy.

The coaching staff was stunned when Reynolds stepped off the shuttle bus in Annapolis.

"I was like, 'Dude, what are you doing here? Go enjoy spring break. Go have a vacation,' " Niumatalolo recalled.

But Reynolds didn't want to relax that week. He wanted to learn everything he could about his new team.

"When you come on your official visit, they show you the greatest parts—all these beautiful buildings and all the awesome things you get to do," Reynolds said. "I just wanted to come in the middle of the year, during spring ball, where there's no glitz or glamour. It's the raw view of what you're going to get."

Reynolds got that raw view he desired. He roomed with a Navy football player that week, followed him to classes and ate in the dining hall with him. When it came time for football, Reynolds was at every practice and team meeting, constantly scribbling on a notepad he brought with him.

The journey to becoming a Navy quarterback was already in full swing.

Shortly after Reynolds returned to Tennessee, he contacted Jasper about getting a Navy playbook—an idea Reynolds said he got from reading up on the career of former Boise State great Kellen Moore.

Navy didn't have a written playbook, so Reynolds found a Georgia Southern one online and dove into it.

Reynolds' attention to detail in studying the triple-option offense in the next few months carried over into other aspects of his early days at the Academy.

As a freshman "plebe," Reynolds asked a surprised swim test instructor what the exact splits needed to be for him to make his time. He lined up his entire fall schedule, including study session times Niumatalolo said freshmen usually skip, all without the help of an adviser.

"That type of thinking got him ahead academically and in the military," Niumatalolo said. "Everything he does is thought out and well-planned. It's so detailed. I'm 50 years old, and I'm not as detailed as that guy."

Navy QB Keenan Reynolds in 2012
Navy QB Keenan Reynolds in 2012Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

In Reynolds' 2012 freshman season, Navy lost three of its first four games. The Midshipmen had been outscored 96-17 in those contests, and fans were getting restless with starting quarterback Trey Miller.

Reynolds, growing more confident in the offensive scheme, had led Navy on several impressive drives late in losses to Penn State and San Jose State.

During Navy's early-season slump, Reynolds knocked on Jasper's office door to ask him a question. Jasper, who said he was confident in sticking with Miller as his starter, feared the worst.

"I thought he was going to come in and tell me that he wanted to start or that he deserved a shot," Jasper said. "But he sat down and told me, 'Coach, how can I get better at running the option?'... That's when I knew this kid was special. He wasn't worried about getting playing time right then. He was worried about how he could get better for when his time came."

Reynolds' time came a few days after his meeting with Jasper, when 1-3 Navy hit the road to face rival Air Force. Miller injured his ankle early in the fourth quarter, and Air Force went up 21-13 on the ensuing possession.

"So we were getting ready for the next drive, and Trey came to me and said, 'Coach, I'm ready to go back in,' " Jasper said. "But Kenny came on the headset and said, 'You know what? I have this feeling.' "

"Kenny" Niumatalolo's feeling led him to replace the experienced Miller, who had already rushed for more than 100 yards in the game, with the young Reynolds in a crunch-time situation.

Navy QB Keenan Reynolds vs. Air Force in 2012
Navy QB Keenan Reynolds vs. Air Force in 2012David Zalubowski/Associated Press

To this day, Niumatalolo admits choosing this option didn't make much sense at the time.

"It wasn't anything analytical," Niumatalolo said. "I'm a spiritual person, and I just felt inside that we should go with Keenan. The rest has been history."

Jasper's immediate reaction to the decision was to throw the ball, something the team didn't do much with Miller. But Reynolds, a more polished passer, gave the Midshipmen the freedom to move the ball quicker in a tight situation.

"It's one of those things that you look back on and realize Kenny had the right feeling," Jasper said with a laugh. "He had the right feeling, and I guess the spirit moved me as well to throw the football as soon as Keenan came in. My mindset is run, run, run. But we threw the ball, and he took us right down the field."

Navy would go on to tie the game on a late Reynolds touchdown and a two-point conversion. The Midshipmen later beat the rival Falcons in overtime.

"I knew that whenever I got into the game, they weren't going to slow things down or change the plays for me," Reynolds said. "I had to keep the train rolling. So I didn't think. I just played and trusted my instincts. Things turned out well for us."

Things turned out well for Reynolds himself after the comeback upset win over Air Force. He became the starter for the rest of the 2012 season and became Navy's first freshman starting quarterback since 1991.

"I saw his mom in the tunnel after the Air Force game," Ingram said. "She looked at me and said, 'I told you so.' We hear that from every mom, but her son went out and actually did it. Then I talked to his high school coach that Monday, and his first response to me was, 'Well, what took you so long?' "

Over the next few seasons, Reynolds became a maestro of the triple option and began his sprint toward the all-time touchdown record. He rushed for a quarterback record-shattering 31 scores as a sophomore in 2013 and 23 more in 2014.

"The reason I like to play quarterback is because you get to orchestrate the offense," Reynolds said. "You make everything go. You're the centerpiece. If the quarterback isn't playing well, the offense isn't playing well. I embrace that role."

In that role, Reynolds has rushed for at least 100 yards 20 times. Twenty-two of his games have included multiple rushing touchdowns.

And while throwing the ball is far from the first thing that sticks out about his game, Reynolds has a career ratio of 29 passing touchdowns to eight interceptions.

"He just wants to be a great quarterback all-around," Ingram said. "He loves making checks and loves to adjust with the defense. ... He can take us right down the field on all of his own play calls. He can diagnose what the defense is doing and check the play perfectly."

Navy QB Keenan Reynolds vs. Memphis in 2015
Navy QB Keenan Reynolds vs. Memphis in 2015Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Reynolds' knack for perfect checks at the line of scrimmage was essential in the ending to one of the biggest games of his career, one week after he tied former Wisconsin running back Montee Ball's all-time rushing touchdown record.

The Midshipmen were playing in Reynolds' home state of Tennessee against then-undefeated and No. 13 Memphis—one of the teams that decided not to offer him a scholarship several years earlier. 

After Memphis fumbled the ball late in the fourth quarter, Reynolds put together a long drive with a 38-20 lead. He later faced a 2nd-and-goal situation from the 1-yard line—just three feet away from college football history.

"We had four plays to get it," Jasper said. "We said we were going to run the ball four straight times, and they were going to be ready to stop him. But we were going to get this record right there."

The play call was for Reynolds to run a quarterback sneak. But when he got to the line of scrimmage, he saw Memphis had 10 defenders in the box.

Reynolds looked to the backfield and barked out another signal. After taking the snap, he delivered a perfect pitch to running back Demond Brown, who easily strode into the end zone for the final score of the upset.

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Just like he did with the spring break trip years earlier, Reynolds made his coaches' jaws drop.

"Here he was, on the verge of a storybook ending in his home state, getting the all-time touchdown record against the No. 13 team in the country—with a lot of family members and friends watching—and he shows that it's not about him," Niumatalolo said. "It's not about the record. It’s about getting the W. That is Keenan Reynolds."

Just like he did with the football against Memphis, Reynolds is always quick to hand off and pitch the praise to his teammates in interviews and postgame press conferences.

"The type of names that are the top of that [career touchdown] list are some of the greatest to ever play football on any level, and to be up there with them is just awesome and a real blessing," Reynolds said. "But it's totally a reflection of the guys around me and the execution we've been able to have as an offense over the last few years. It's not about me."

NCAA All-Time Leaderboard for Career Rushing Touchdowns
NameSchool (Years Played)Rushing Touchdowns
1. Keenan ReynoldsNavy (2012-present)83
2. Montee BallWisconsin (2009-2012)77
3. Travis PrenticeMiami-Ohio (1996-1999)73
4. Ricky WilliamsTexas (1995-1998)72
5. Ron DayneWisconsin (1996-1999)71
6. Kenneth DixonLouisiana Tech (2012-present)70
7. Anthony ThompsonIndiana (1986-1989)67
8. Cedric BensonTexas (2001-2004)64
T-9. Eric CrouchNebraska (1998-2001)59
T-9. Tony DorsettPittsburgh (1973-1976)59
T-9. Colin KaepernickNevada (2007-2010)59

The name Keenan Reynolds has been synonymous with Navy football for the last few years—Jasper joked that Reynolds' nickname at the Academy is "The Godfather"—but the quarterback doesn't carry himself like the typical Big Man on Campus.

"The thing that all of us respect about him the most is that he sets such a great example," fullback Chris Swain, a fellow senior starter, told Bleacher Report. "He's the hardest worker on the team. He's always spending the most time in the film room and the weight room."

Swain said he and Reynolds have developed a tight bond over the years, spending countless, tiring hours working hard in the Navy backfield and in their military training at the Academy.

Navy FB Chris Swain and QB Keenan Reynolds
Navy FB Chris Swain and QB Keenan ReynoldsJeff Haynes/Associated Press

"This is a tough school, and we've been through a lot together," Swain said. "We spend a lot of time with one another, and we know what each other goes through. ... And what stands out about Keenan is how selfless he is."

Reynolds' personality and relationship with his teammates have made him a perfect leader in the eyes of Niumatalolo.

"If you’re a leader here, you're a leader. Period," Niumatalolo said. "This school is a school of leaders. The United States Naval Academy recruits the best and the brightest from all around the country. So if you can come here and be a leader, that's pretty impressive.

"So right after we got that big win over Memphis, I was ready to tell our guys, 'We can't look in the rearview mirror. We have to move on to SMU.' And as I walked in, I found out Keenan had done it already in the weight room with our other team captain, Bernie Sarra. And I was like, 'Holy smokes, if the AD saw this, he'd cut my pay.' "

The speech worked. Navy blew out SMU 55-14, and Reynolds broke the all-time career rushing touchdown record in the first quarter.

Navy QB Keenan Reynolds vs. Army in 2013
Navy QB Keenan Reynolds vs. Army in 2013Matt Slocum/Associated Press

On Saturday, Reynolds will play the penultimate game of his legendary college career.

He'll have a chance to go a perfect 4-0 against Army and win his third Commander-in-Chief's Trophy. Later this month, he'll play at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium one final time in the Military Bowl.

If the Midshipmen beat both Army and Pittsburgh, Reynolds will have quarterbacked Navy to the first 11-win season in its 136-year history. A Military Bowl win would make him the first Midshipmen quarterback to ever win three consecutive postseason games. 

"To win in this offense, you've got to have a special quarterback who is going to be durable and come ready to play every week," Jasper said. "He's got to know he's going to get hit a lot, but he just doesn't worry about that. I think that's the biggest thing for him. He just wants to be a great player."

As a proven winner who has scored more rushing touchdowns than any other player in college football history, the next logical step in Reynolds' journey seems like it would be a shot at the NFL.

It's rare for a Navy player to go pro, but it's not impossible. Reynolds could join former teammate Joe Cardona, a long snapper who became the first Navy player to be drafted since 1993 when the New England Patriots took him in the fifth round earlier this year.

The Patriots made special arrangements with the Navy in order for Cardona to perform his military duties while also playing professional football. Another team could do the same with Reynolds.

He might not be able to play quarterback in the NFL, but a franchise could use his record-breaking rushing talents in a different role.

Navy QB Keenan Reynolds (left)
Navy QB Keenan Reynolds (left)Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

But when asked about his future plans, Reynolds never once mentions the NFL. The player who built a career off reading and running all the options is laser-focused on just one right now.

"I find out what I'm going to be doing in the Navy soon," Reynolds said. "I'm just weighing it all out and seeing what happens. Everything is going to handle itself."

Reynolds will be able to apply leadership skills and meticulous attention to detail that have made him a record-breaking football player to his upcoming naval career in information warfare.

The quarterback who was considered too small to play major college football will soon close this chapter in his life and transition to an important role as a different kind of hero.

However, Reynolds doesn't want to be remembered for having the most rushing touchdowns of any player in college football history.

He wants to be known for all the victories he earned alongside his teammates. For him, sealing the winningest season in Navy history would be the perfect way to go out.

"I want to leave a legacy of a selfless leader who won football games," Reynolds said. "Ultimately, you're not measured by all the records and how many touchdowns you scored. All that's great. But if you don't win games, you won't get remembered."

But there's no chance the college football world will forget Keenan Reynolds. 

He's given it no other option.

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of cfbstats.com. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.com.

Justin Ferguson is a college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.