Navy's Keenan Reynolds remembers the challenges of his freshman year, as he got acclimated to service academy life while also adjusting to Division I football. He often found himself "running around in circles' as he tried to find the other quarterbacks in practice.
Now a senior, Reynolds is one of the most decorated players in the history of the Midshipmen's long, storied program. He will continue to play a vital role as Navy enters its first year as a member of the American Athletic Conference after playing the previous 134 seasons as an independent.
"This year, there is added optimism with us entering a conference,' Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "It's a new time for our program, which we are really excited about.'
Reynolds' 64 rushing touchdowns are already a program record and the most by any quarterback in the NCAA. In his career, he could break the overall record of 77 rushing touchdowns held by former Wisconsin tailback and current Denver Bronco Montee Ball.
However, Reynolds remains focused on winning games, not personal records.
"I am proud of my teammates,' said Reynolds, who has also run for 3,186 yards and thrown for another 1,798 to go along with 23 passing touchdowns. "It takes 11 guys to make something go. None of these records I've been fortunate enough to accomplish would be possible without those guys up front and the defense getting us the ball back.'
The AAC is a 12-team conference divided into two six-team divisions. Navy is in the West Division, along with Houston, SMU, Tulsa, Memphis and Tulane.
The early consensus for Navy among media members who cover the league is a third-place finish in the West Division. Cincinnati, which plays in the East Division, is the favorite to win the inaugural conference championship game.
Last season, Navy went 8-5 and defeated San Diego State, 17-16, in the Poinsettia Bowl. But Niumatalolo does not expect a big adjustment for his players this season.
"The preparation doesn't change,' Niumatalolo said. "We know we have to get ready for every game. What it adds is another goal for us, which makes us very excited. To have an opportunity to play for our conference championship, I know is exciting for these guys.'
While the offense centers on Reynolds and the ability to run the triple-option, the Midshipmen have several other effective weapons that can change a game. Senior fullback Chris Swain, who is 6-foot-1, 245 pounds, has shown the ability to break long runs, especially when he gets downhill. He ran for 693 yards on 104 carries with four touchdowns last season.
Junior wide receiver Jamir Tillman also displayed the ability to make big plays in 2014. He caught 20 passes for 386 yards with three touchdowns and is being lauded as one of the top receivers in Navy's triple-option era.
"When the ball is around that guy, he finds a way to come down with it,' Niumatalolo said of Tillman. "He's definitely a guy we feel like we have to utilize more.'
Senior slot back DeBrandon Sanders, who averaged 8 yards on 29 carries with three touchdowns, is also expected to play a critical role.
One of the bigger challenges facing Navy this season is replacing three offensive linemen -- right guard Jake Zuzek, center Tanner Fleming and left tackle Bradyn Heap -- lost to graduation. Senior offensive guard E.K. Binns, who started 12 of 13 games last season, will help keep the group stable. Binns earned first-team FBS All-Independent honors last year and is confident the team has enough depth to remain effective. Junior offensive tackle Blake Copeland and senior guard Ben Tamburello should also help fill some of the void.
"You lose players every year,' Binns said. "Losing seniors last year is rough, so next man up. Right now, whoever is playing, I have full confidence in them.'
The defense also lost some talent, including three starting linebackers, and will be led by nose guard Bernard Sarra. The senior captain started all 13 games last season, finished with 38 tackles and led the nation with three blocked field goals.
"It's really exciting to be the first team in Navy history to be part of this conference,' Sarra said. "We'll lay the foundation for that. It will also be exciting over the years to play these opponents and build more in-conference rivals.'
Daniel Gonzales is the lone returning starter at linebacker. He was second on the team with 86 tackles and had three interceptions. Sophomore Micah Thomas, an imposing 6-foot-1, 249 pounds, should start at inside linebacker and was named as a potential breakout player in the conference by USA Today.
While there are some questions entering the season, there is no doubt this is an exciting time for Navy football. The Midshipmen will not only be able to challenge for a conference title for the first time, but also extend their recruiting footprint.
"I just feel like being in this conference is something we had to do,' Niumatalolo said about joining the AAC. "I am grateful for it."