Military academies have a higher calling than producing professional athletes, but when such a player does land at Army, Navy or Air Force there is the feeling of having bought a lottery ticket and ending up with $10 million. Navy’s Keenan Reynolds is the latest winning ticket.
Having rewritten not just the Navy, but the NCAA record book, the Midshipmen quarterback was drafted in the sixth round (seventh pick, 182nd overall) by the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL draft Saturday. There are no immediate aspirations of Wheaties lining him up for one of their cereal boxes. The Ravens have already indicated they plan to have Reynolds play wide receiver and punt returner, and while that’s not the kind of glamour position whose players are often called upon to sell cereal or beer or athletic shoes Reynolds isn’t likely to put up the kind of numbers he did at Navy.
”That’s what I’ve been working on,” Reynolds told the Associated Press about his prospective pro positions. ”I just think my best area is being in [open] space with the football.”
He finished his career with an NCAA Division I record 88 career touchdowns and an NCAA FBS record 4,559 rushing yards by a quarterback. He ended his college career leading the Middies to a 44-28 victory over Pittsburgh in the Military Bowl, a game in which he passed for 126 yards and one touchdown and rushed for 144 yards and two scores, including a 9-yard dash up the middle late in the fourth quarter.
With that touchdown, Reynolds passed former Louisiana Tech running back Kenneth Dixon for most career touchdowns. Reynolds also broke Michigan’s Denard Robinson’s record for most career rushing yards by a quarterback. He even managed to lead the Midshipmen in receiving yards in the game, having caught a 47-yard bomb. And, perhaps of most importance, he is the only quarterback to have beaten Army four times.
There have been a total of 58 academy football players land in the NFL – 24 from Army, 22 from Navy, 12 from Air Force. The most recent was Navy long snapper Joe Cardona, who was drafted in the fifth round of the draft in 2015 by the Patriots. He played the full season, but his status for 2016 in unsure,
Army offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a 2010 graduate, is due to begin his second season with the Steelers. Trent Steelman, a 2013 Army graduate who broke all Black Knights’ rushing and passing quarterback records, was signed by the Ravens as a free agent last year, but failed to make the team.
A 5-year military commitment is required of academy graduates, but a Department of Defense directive that took effect in 2008 permits graduates to apply for early release after two years of active duty to participate in pro sports; some, as in the case of Cardona, can apply for release even sooner. If it is granted, they serve in the military reserves and pay back part of their education costs. Villanueva served four years before pursuing his football career; Steelman, two years. Reynolds will be permitted to do so after graduating this year; following whatever the length of his pro career, Reynolds said he will be a warfare officer focusing on cyber warfare.
Clearly, the most illustrious academy football player ever was Navy’s Roger Staubach. Reynolds is surely near the top of the list. He and Connecticut women’s basketball player Breanna Stewart were named co-winners of the Amateur Athletic Union’s 2016 James E. Sullivan Award. And he finished fifth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy. Nevertheless, he was not chosen to attend the NFL scouting combine in February. There were 332 invitees.
“I was obviously upset. I wanted to be there, [but] I continued to use it as fuel, work as hard as I could to prove that I belong,” Reynolds said in a conference call.
He still believes he has the ability to play quarterback. His first priority, certainly, is to prove he can be a productive player, at whatever position.
“I certainly do believe I can be an NFL quarterback,” he said. “But it’s a matter of who wants to see me at that position. Whatever they see me as, that’s what I am going to be doing. Whatever I can do to be a successful member of a team, to help them win, it’s OK with me.”
In addition to its personal benefits, Reynolds having been drafted could be of benefit to academy football in general.
“He’s a really good player,” Army head coach Jeff Monken said. “They’ve got some others and we have some really good players. All the academies have and will continue to. I think it helps when you have a player who can play at the highest level. It’s a message to everyone who follows our team who are interested in playing at Army specifically that anything is attainable. There are a lot of things you can do at West Point and that’s one of them, to continue to play the sport you love and at the highest level, professional. I’d love to see that for every kid we coach and every kid that plays here.
“I can’t speak for anyone else who makes those decisions. There’s only seven draft picks for each team so if you take the whole grand scheme of things, all the guys who played college football this year who are eligible for the draft there are only 224 for 32 teams, That’s not very many. How many players are playing this sport who are seniors and juniors who are eligible to go into the draft? [Reynolds] is a very good player. This will be a great opportunity for him.”
Army completed its spring practice with the Black-Gold Spring Game at Michie Stadium Saturday. The offense defeated the defense 56-38.
“This is a reward for the guys,” Monken said. “That’s probably the philosophy of most coaches. This game is just a reward for 14 days of hard work. It’s no game,. You’re really not playing against anybody. You get to go in front of crowd and it’s like the culmination of the spring season and it’s fun. They get to be out there against each other. It’s fun. I think it’s a great reward.”
The Black Knights used an intricate scoring system with the offense gaining points for touchdowns, third-down conversions and sustaining a long drive. The defense was rewarded for turnovers and stops on third and fourth downs, as well as sacks and tackles for loss.
“It was fun,” running back Aaron Kemper said. “We have a very versatile group. We have a lot of young guys and some veteran players and we’re all getting better. As an offense, we definitely got better at passing and we got better at assignments, but we still have a lot of room to improve.”