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'I ain't telling Army who's playing': Navy's QB mystery spices a familiar rivalry

Navy fullback Myles Benning (31) and quarterback Zach Abey sit on the bench while the defense is on the field during the Navy-Air Force football game at Annapolis, Md., Oct. 7, 2017.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By AVA WALLACE | The Washington Post | Published: December 8, 2017

Ken Niumatalolo had been anticipating the question since mid-November, so last week at the annual media luncheon in Philadelphia ahead of Saturday's Army-Navy football game, the Navy coach took a deep breath, straightened up and glanced down at the many recorders on the table in front of him.

"Well, it's a week out, so the answer I have for you now is that all three quarterbacks are available to play."

The tight smile that followed indicated it was time for the next question.

In the week since, Niumatalolo's answer as to who will start for Navy at quarterback Saturday hasn't changed. He was even more succinct during practice in Annapolis on Wednesday.

"I ain't telling Army who's playing."

Navy's starting quarterback has been a mystery leading up to a game in which mystery is largely a foreign concept. One of college football's most historic rivalries is also one of its most familiar: Army (8-3) and Navy (6-5) will face off for the 118th time on Saturday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. Niumatalolo and Jeff Monken, Army's fourth-year coach, were graduate assistants together at Hawaii in 1990, and Monken was the assistant in charge of slotbacks and special teams at Navy from 2002 till 2007, where he worked with many on Niumatalolo's current staff. Both teams employ a triple-option offense, so defenses know what to expect.

Niumatalolo has three capable quarterbacks in Zach Abey, Malcolm Perry and Garrett Lewis, although the latter hasn't seen significant playing time this season. He hopes that Navy's flexibility, and secrecy, will ultimately give them an edge against the strongest Army team his team has faced in years.

"We just don't want to make their preparation easier," Niumatalolo said. "We don't want to give anybody any edge with who's playing, who's going to be the quarterback, how we practice. Does it really matter? I don't know. But as coaches, you kind of play psychological games."

In all likelihood, more than one Navy quarterback will seed some playing time Saturday. All three played in the Mids' regular season finale against Houston, and Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper are comfortable switching quarterbacks midgame.

Jasper will coach Saturday, Navy football spokesperson Scott Strasemeier said Friday afternoon. Jasper's availability had been in question after he missed Wednesday's practice to be with his son Jarren, 14, who is awaiting a heart transplant.

Who will start at quarterback Saturday is more than a matter of gamesmanship. It has been a question since Perry, who played quarterback as a freshman but converted to slotback this season, made a surprise start under center in place of Abey against Southern Methodist on Nov. 11.

The sophomore returned to quarterback for two reasons: First, because Abey was nursing a left shoulder injury suffered in the previous game against Temple, and second, because Niumtalolo decided his offense needed a big-play threat.

Perry nailed his audition, rushing for 282 yards in the 43-40 victory, third most in a game in program history, but sprained his ankle. Since then, Niumatalolo has declined to name a starting quarterback ahead of kickoffs. Perry is a gifted outside runner, slippery and able to change direction without losing pace. Abey, a high school wrestler who started the season's first eight games, is more of a bulldozer, prefers to run inside, and has success throwing the ball when needed.

Abey is the Mids' leading rusher with 1,322 yards and 14 touchdowns on 278 carries. Perry is second with 818 yards on 92 carries and eight rushing touchdowns, including two of more than 90 yards.

Navy believe that forcing opponents to prepare for two different types of quarterbacks, even if the Midshipmen rarely changes up their offense, can only give them a leg up.

"One's a hard-nosed runner and one guy's super fast," Niumatalolo said. "So we've got to think, throughout the course of the game, what's the best avenue to get us a win? Both of them have had their advantages, and sometimes both of them have their disadvantages. If there's a hole that maybe Malcolm could've gotten through that closed up, but sometimes there's no hole and Zach could squash through for three more yards and Malcolm would get hit and fall down. Those are the things we're thinking about."

Monken said he's had to make his defense aware of the subtle differences that come into play depending on who's under center.

"Preparing for this offense is not easy anyway," Monken said last week. "I don't know that we can change entirely what we do because one is in the game or the other. You look at what they do best, each one of them, what's their strengths, and what they do with those guys when they're in the game. And we try to build a game plan that defends those things that they do best, and hope it's good enough. Because you can't prepare for everything."

Though Niumatalolo hopes Navy's quarterback carousel keeps opponents off balance, he's also had to make sure his team is adjusting well to any changes at the position. He is an emotional coach, and he feels it whenever he has to tell a certain player he won't be starting.

"I don't like it, because I know how much they put into it," Niumatalolo said. "And they're great guys. If they were jerks, it would be easier."

Abey said none of the quarterbacks take their coach's decision personally, especially since they all have different skill sets.

"It's been back and forth a lot this year," Perry said. "Different teams, different games call for different people and different tools we have individually. It's been pretty crazy, but it has been fun. I think we work together well, we're always behind each other whoever they have playing."

Said Abey: "We all recognize our strengths and we know that the coaches want to put in the guy that's going to be the best for the team. That's ultimately what we care about the most."

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