A year after he set numerous NCAA records, garnered a groundswell of support for college football's highest individual honor and finished leading Navy to an unprecedented run of success, Keenan Reynolds is working on his skill set in near anonymity.
A member of the Ravens' practice squad, Reynolds is on the sideline for home and away games, but he's typically in a sweat suit rather than a uniform. He practices with the team every day, but his role on the scout team usually has him wearing the jersey number of a wide receiver the Ravens are preparing to face that weekend. Much of Reynolds' work with wide receivers coach Bobby Engram is done after practice when few people are watching and most of the Ravens have long settled into the locker room.
"It's definitely an adjustment, but it's also very humbling and an important part of my career," Reynolds said after a recent Ravens practice. "I'm just working every day, trying to keep my eyes on the end goal and being patient because the time will come. I just have to be ready for my opportunity."
The Ravens drafted Reynolds in the sixth round in April, believing that the prolific former Navy quarterback could make the transition to NFL wide receiver and return specialist. About eight weeks after Reynolds was among the team's final preseason roster cuts, cleared waivers and was re-signed to the team's practice squad, Ravens coaches sound more resolute than ever in their belief in Reynolds.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Keenan Reynolds is going to be a very good receiver in this league," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday.
"He's a guy that we value a lot. We all have high hopes for him," said associate head coach and special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, who describes Reynolds as "America's finest."
Reynolds, 21, wouldn't go as far as to say that he needed this time away from the pressure cooker of games and a summer roster struggle. As an ultra-competitive player who has proved people wrong before, it would be uncharacteristic for him to make that concession. However, he will readily say how beneficial his time on the practice squad has been.
His slew of drops and muffed punts during training camp practices were well documented, and revealed a player who had a lot to learn about a new position and different role. Reynolds had just one catch for two yards in four preseason games, and showed little to suggest that he'd be able to help the Ravens' active roster immediately.
But his current role allows him to work on his own skills, while helping to prepare his teammates for upcoming opponents. Reynolds has mimicked the New York Giants' Sterling Shepard, the Washington Redskins' DeSean Jackson and other receivers during game weeks. To prepare, he watches film on them and other pass catchers throughout the league, looking to incorporate things into his own game.
"Just being on the practice squad in this role, it gives me an opportunity to just focus on the craft, and not have to worry about being perfect," Reynolds said. "That's kind of what I'm doing every day — just honing in on being better and not worrying about anything else. I just try and give the best looks I can and get the guys ready for Sundays."
Harbaugh got on Reynolds during Wednesday's practice because he dropped two punts. Otherwise, coaches have praised the strides Reynolds has made both as a receiver and returner. They say that he's running smoother routes, catching the ball more consistently and making better decisions on returns. Reynolds, who was bothered by a nagging hamstring injury during training camp, also said that his conditioning has improved significantly and his body is now more accustomed to the physical demands of running routes and playing receiver.
Recently, Reynolds adjusted his practice schedule to get on the field earlier, so he can catch more punts off the foot of Sam Koch, a master of directional punting and putting spin on the ball. Reynolds is also staying on the field later, getting one-on-one tutorials from Engram, who played receiver for 14 NFL seasons. Some days they work on getting off press coverage or getting in and out of breaks on certain routes. Other days they just catch balls from the JUGS machine.
"Keenan wants to be a great receiver, not just a good one, and he's willing to put in the work," Engram said. "The thing about it, and I tell Keenan [this], he's never played the position, so the learning curve at first was a big learning curve. But I think for us, it's been the fundamental focus of just him gaining experience that comes through practice, and us working specific fundamentals after practice. … We've just tried to have a game plan — here's our goal, here's our vision — and just work toward it."
At this time last season, Reynolds was surging toward the conclusion of one of the most decorated careers in Navy history. His 88 career touchdowns are the most in NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision history. His 4,559 career rushing yards are the most in NCAA history by a quarterback and set a school record. He also set school records in points (716), touchdown passes (31) and wins (32). He capped his career by finishing fifth in Heisman Trophy voting last year.
Now, Reynolds goes to work every day, knowing there's no guarantee that he'll get a chance to play in an NFL regular-season game this year. Ravens return specialist Devin Hester Sr. has struggled and wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. has missed time with an ankle injury. Even if the Ravens did look to their practice squad for reinforcements at those spots, they have two other receivers (Kenny Bell and Dobson Collins) on the practice squad and both Bell and practice squad cornerback Asa Jackson have more return experience than Reynolds.
Reynolds, though, has experience in keeping things in perspective.
"Obviously, as a competitor, you want to be on the field playing, but just being in the NFL is a blessing," Reynolds said. "There are so many men across the country that would love to be in my shoes. Every time I come in here, I just try and do the best I can and earn my keep."