ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — To no one’s surprise, the very first question asked of Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo at media day involved replacing quarterback Keenan Reynolds.
Reynolds was a rare four-year starter who set a slew of school and NCAA records running Navy’s triple-option offense. A sixth-round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens, Reynolds is currently trying to make it in the NFL as a slot receiver and returner.
Senior Tago Smith has the unenviable task of replacing one of the best football players in the storied history of the Naval Academy. Perhaps only John Cartwright, who succeeded Hall of Famer Roger Staubach as Navy’s starting quarterback in 1965, would understand what Smith is going through.
“Obviously, Keenan was a really good football player, a big part of our program. But we’re excited about Tago,” Niumatalolo said. “This is his time and he’s paid the price.”
Smith, a product of Fayetteville, Georgia, has played in 18 games with two starts during his career. In 2014, when Reynolds could not go against Texas State due to a knee injury, Smith rushed for 117 yards and two touchdowns and threw for a pair of TDs. Smith started again later that season versus Virginia Military Institute and accounted for 106 yards and two touchdowns in a convincing victory.
Reynolds was healthy throughout the 2015 season, so Smith mostly saw time toward the end of games that had already been decided. The exception came against Notre Dame, when Smith was thrust into action after Reynolds left the game to get x-rays on his knee.
Smith promptly led Navy on two touchdown drives to close the first half, showing superb command of the option attack.
“What makes me feel good is that Tago is 2-0 as a starter,” Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said. “I always go back to the fact we two-platoon in practice. The starter and the backup get the same amount of reps. To me, Tago’s played a lot of football and seen a lot of looks. He’s going to be able to get us into the right play and get the ball to the right person.”
As always, Air Force and Army are the most important games. Navy must sweep its service academy rivals in order to capture the coveted Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the 11th time since 2003.
The matchup with the Falcons, which always comes in early October, has often been a barometer for the Midshipmen. This year’s contest will be held in Colorado Springs, where Navy fell in 2010 and 2014. Navy is seeking a 15th straight victory over archrival Army.
October matchups two weeks apart against Houston and Memphis figure to determine whether Navy wins the West Division and earns a berth in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
Navy has posted winning records in 12 of the last 13 seasons and figures to do so again in 2016. The game against Notre Dame is set for Jacksonville, Florida, on Nov. 5. It would be a surprise if Navy did not continue its service academy dominance and reclaim the CIC Trophy for the second straight season. An 8-4 regular season record seems about right for the Mids. The Midshipmen are contractually obligated to appear in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas, if eligible.
Championship Subdivision member Fordham visits Annapolis on Sept. 3. Fordham finished second in the Patriot League in 2015. The Rams boast a dynamic running back in Chase Edmonds, who rushed for 1,648 yards and 20 touchdowns a year ago.
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