Quarterback Keenan Reynolds has been the biggest factor in… (Ron Chenoy, US PRESSWIRE )
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo was standing on the field at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland, before his team's season opener against Notre Dame, talking with longtime defensive line coach Dale Pehrson about the collective inexperience of the Midshipmen.
"I thought we were as talented as we've ever been," Niumatalolo said Monday. "We just looked around, and Dale looked at me said, 'I feel good about where we are at as a program,' and I said, 'So do I.'
"And then we got our brains beat in, 50-10. And it was like, 'What were we thinking?'"
The Midshipmen have had 17 players make their first career start this season, fifth most in the country. They've had 13 true freshmen play, which is tied for sixth most. But that perceived weakness has gradually become a strength.
One of the freshmen, quarterback Keenan Reynolds, has been the biggest reason for Navy's turnaround over the last month. Since replacing an injured Trey Miller in the fourth quarter Oct. 6 at Air Force — with Navy trailing by eight points — Reynolds has led the Midshipmen to four straight victories heading into Saturday's game against Florida Atlantic (2-6).
Reynolds has been nearly flawless, completing 20 of 32 passes for 336 yards and six touchdowns since taking over in that Air Force game, with only one interception. He has rushed 54 times for 228 yards and scored five touchdowns, and has yet to lose a fumble.
In a 56-28 win at East Carolina on Saturday, Reynolds accounted for 132 yards and five touchdowns. Not only is he the first freshman to start at quarterback at Navy in 21 years, Reynolds is the first to start on more than an emergency basis for a team that Niumatalolo has been around in 24 years as a colllege assistant and head coach.
"The kid is unique in that way," Niumatalolo said. "I don't want to say too much and have his head get too big, but he's a grounded kid. He's not only done a lot of things for our offense, but for our team. He gave us a great deal of confidence going into the second half of the season."
Reynolds is not the only Navy freshman to have made an impact, either.
After winning a preseason competition among six inconsistent kickers, Nick Sloan has yet to miss on eight field goal attempts and 25 extra points, the only kicker in the country aside from Alabama's Jeremy Shelly who has been perfect.
A year after freshmen Chris Ferguson and Parrish Gaines solidified a shaky secondary, first-year cornerbacks Quincy Adams and Kwazel Bertrand have done the same. Bertrand, who took over two weeks ago when Adams was sidelined by a recurring shoulder injury, has had strong performances against both Indiana (seven tackles, two pass breakups) and East Carolina (four tackles, two breakups).
The Midshipmen have also had several sophomores perform well as first-time starters, or off the bench.
Offensive guard Jake Zuzek, who recovered a fumble by Reynolds in the end zone in overtime against Air Force, has helped revive the triple-option attack that included a season-high 563 yards at East Carolina.
Outside linebacker Jordan Drake had a crucial sack at Air Force, then had eight tackles and returned an interception for a touchdown against Indiana. In their first significant action, sophomore slotbacks Ryan Williams-Jenkins and Geoffrey Whiteside combined for 97 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries against East Carolina.
It has led Navy (5-3) to the brink of its fourth bowl invitation in Niumatalolo's five seasons and the nintt in the last 10 years for the Midshipmen, who will get their bid to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Franciso on Dec. 29 if they beat Florida Atlantic on Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Niumatalolo said the blowout defeats to Notre Dame — then ranked 24th in the USA Today coaches' poll — and two weeks later at Penn State, where the Midshipmen lost 34-7, ultimately forced Navy to look for answers from its younger players than it wasn't getting from upperclassmen.
"We were kind of forged in the fire against Notre Dame, where people now see they're a pretty good team, and then [against] Penn State in Happy Valley, and I think those early games forced us to grow up," Niumatalolo said. "We didn't have any choice. It just happened because of the toughness of the schedule."
Though the remainder of the schedule is significantly easier — only one opponent, Troy, is ranked in the top 100 of the Sagarin Ratings used by USA Today (90) — Niumatalolo is aware that "if we stop now, it can be the biggest collapse in Navy history. We've just got to keep grinding."