College Football Corner: Midshipmen Replace Quarterback, Keep Culture

WASHINGTON — Keenan Reynolds is gone. But those who remain in Annapolis are prepared to carry on.

While opposing defenses won’t have to worry about the record-setting Midshipman quarterback for the first time since 2011, the cupboard is by no means bare at the Naval Academy.

Coach Ken Niumatalolo may have to replace Reynolds and nine other starters on offense, plus four more on defense, but he’s built a culture at the academy over the last eight years.

“It’s not only what you believe, but what you embody and what you put into action,” Niumatalolo said. “I think we preach what our culture is, and what ends up happening is you have to live it. And breathe it. And act it out. Being selfless, hard-working, tough, disciplined.”

Let the record show that before Keenan Reynolds showed up, Navy’s option offense was already making opponents dizzy. The Mids led the nation in rushing during Niumatalolo’s first season at the helm in 2008, and had actually led Division I-A the previous three years under then-coach Paul Johnson.

It’s not who you block in the Navy option as much as who you don’t block—and the blend of quickness and discipline will return to the field this fall.

Quarterback Tago Smith had the unfortunate timing of being just one year behind Reynolds, as he’s had to sit and wait for his opportunity the last three years. However, the senior had the benefit of watching and learning from Reynolds.

He said, “Just watching him in the film room, watching how he takes to the practice field, watching how focused he gets before the game starts, day in and day out, definitely helps.”

Smith saw action in a career-high seven games last fall—his best effort was a 47-yard rushing performance against Notre Dame, a game in which he rallied the Mids from 14 points down to tie up the Fighting Irish just before halftime.

Smith’s top target will be senior wide receiver Jamir Tillman, who’s led the team in receiving the last two years, while averaging 20 yards per catch. His 49 grabs in 2014 and 2015 don’t really grab you until you realize he’s accounted for 39 percent of the Midshipmen’s receptions in that time—and 56 percent of the team’s touchdown passes. Big things are expected of the senior, as he is the lone returning starter from last year.

The 10 new starters hardly means this will be an inexperienced offense, as five of those players are seniors. Look for sparkplug slotback Toneo Gulley (15.8 yards per carry and 15 yards per catch in 2015) to provide thrills and chills out of the backfield.

The defense returns seven starters to a unit that was vastly improved in 2015 — the Mids ranked 26th in scoring defense last fall after finishing 80th in 2014.

While losing their best pass rusher, Will Anthony (7.5 of the team’s 22 sacks), to graduation, they return all four starting linebackers. Micah Thomas and Daniel Gonzales provide the foundation in play-making on the field and leadership off of it.

The Midshipmen open their season at home against Fordham, and start American Athletic Conference play one week later, when UConn comes to Annapolis.

The big early game of the schedule is Oct. 1 at Air Force. The Falcons return 14 starters and have won two of the last three games played in Colorado Springs.

The following week, the Mids are back home against defending AAC champ Houston. The Cougars were the only team in the league to beat Keenan Reynolds and company last year.

This year’s game with Notre Dame on Nov. 5 will be played in Jacksonville — the second time this game has been staged in Florida. As fate would have it, the Fighting Irish have never played the Midshipmen in Annapolis.

But the season for many remains an 11-game appetizer — 12 if they play in for the AAC title — for the main course that is Army-Navy Dec. 10.

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