On the heels of a season with 1,413 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns, Zach Abey is switching positions.
That’s right. When Navy released an updated depth chart on Monday, Abey, the team’s starting quarterback for most of 2017, was listed as a co-starter at wide receiver, according to the Capital Gazette. Malcolm Perry was listed as the team’s starting quarterback.
Toward the end of last season, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said Perry, a speedy 5-foot-9, 185-pound junior, would be the team’s top option at quarterback moving forward with the 6-foot-2, 212-pound Abey assisting in short-yardage roles in the team’s triple option offense.
As the team went through spring practice, however, Abey realized he would not be content with serving only in that role.
“We’re just trying to get our best players on the field. Zach is clearly one of our best players and this is a good way to get him out there,” Niumatalolo told The Capital on Monday afternoon. “Zach is still going to play quarterback, but he is just too valuable to sit on the bench for most of the game.”
Niumatalolo meets annually with every Navy football player following spring camp to tell them personally where they stand within the program. In talking to Abey, it became clear to the eighth-year head coach that he would not be satisfied with seeing spot duty at quarterback.
“Zach wants to play as much as possible and I completely understand that,” Niumatalolo said. “When I mentioned the possibility of playing wide receiver, Zach was very excited about it. He is confident he can contribute at that position.”
Abey rushed for more than 100 yards in Navy’s first seven games last season, including two efforts of 200-plus yards. Abey’s 1,412 yards is the second-best single-season effort in program history, but his bruising inside running style took its toll as the year progressed. Abey was injured against Temple, a game where he gained only 60 yards on 25 carries. Perry got the start the following week against SMU and rushed for 282 yards and four touchdowns in a win.
From then on out, the two split carries, but it became clear that Perry — with his ability to exploit the outside of the defense with his speed — was more effective. By the time the season ended, Perry finished with 1,182 yards and 11 touchdowns on 138 carries — an 8.6-yard average.
By comparison, Abey gained 4.8 yards per carry for the year, but was very effective in that short-yardage role in the Military Bowl against Virginia. In a dominant 49-7 win, Abey rushed for 88 yards and five touchdowns on 13 carries, earning MVP honors. Perry rushed for 114 yards and two scores on 16 carries that day, but left the game in the third quarter with an injury (which gave Abey additional carries).
The offense that day seemed like it could be a blueprint for Navy in 2018. It still could, but Abey will figure into the rotation at wide receiver as well, where blocking is priority No. 1 in the triple option. The team’s hope is that Abey will have acclimated to rhythm of the game at wideout, which will pay off when he is called upon to play quarterback.
From the Capital Gazette:
(Offensive coordinator Ivin) Jasper still has a plan in place to use Abey at quarterback in certain situations. Abey believes having already gotten into a game at wide receiver would make it more comfortable for him to suddenly line up under center for a goal-line play.
“That would be better than coming off the bench cold. He will have already been in the flow of the game,” Niumatalolo noted.
The 2017 season was a down year by the standard Niumatalolo has established during his tenure. After a 5-0 start, the Midshipmen lost six of their last seven to round out the regular season. The bowl win ensured a winning record, 7-6, but it could have been significantly better. Four of the team’s six losses were by one possession. The other two were by 10 points.
Perhaps making the move to Perry as the starting quarterback will help Navy move back up the AAC standings.
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