Malcolm takes the helm: Perry era at Navy begins with Thursday's Military Bowl
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. (Tribune News Service) | Published: December 27, 2017
Malcolm Perry is now officially the starting quarterback, but he is not the one and only answer to Navy’s ongoing offensive struggles.
Navy’s patented triple-option offense did not operate smoothly during the second half of the season and a change at quarterback will not fix all the problems. That was the message of offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper, who cited a mixture of missed assignments, penalties and turnovers as major reasons why the Midshipmen were unable to sustain drives.
“Things just weren’t going right with the offense. I wasn’t coaching great and the group wasn’t playing great,” Jasper said. “I’m the first to admit that I didn’t do the best job I could this season.”
Season-long starter Zach Abey had success running the ball inside, but sometimes struggled with reading defenses and implementing the perimeter element of the triple-option. The Archbishop Spalding product has amassed 1,325 rushing yards — the sixth-best, single-season total in program history.
“It wasn’t just Zach. We didn’t play very well overall. We didn’t play well up front, didn’t play well at slotback, didn’t play well at wide receiver. Everything just went bad,” Jasper said. “This is nothing against Zach, who has done all we’ve asked. It just comes down to looking at what helps us win football games and we feel this kid definitely does that.”
Perry proved during two previous starts at quarterback that his game-breaking ability can overcome or mask other issues. The sophomore sensation rushed for 282 yards and four touchdowns against SMU then added 250 yards and a score versus archrival Army.
Jasper and head coach Ken Niumatalolo have since determined that Perry is the future at quarterback and his tenure begins Thursday in the Military Bowl.
“We feel Malcolm is the quarterback that gives us the best chance to win football games from here on out,” Jasper said. “Malcolm is now a full-time quarterback so his thought process needs to be solely that of a quarterback. Now it’s my job to get him ready going forward.”
Navy’s coaching staff entered this season believing Abey could do a superb job at quarterback and that Perry could contribute as a starting slotback. Things seemed fine through five games as Abey rushed for 870 yards and nine touchdowns while leading Mids to an unbeaten start.
Perry had 346 yards rushing and 98 yards receiving at that point in the season, but had only touched the ball 32 times on offense — an average of less than seven per game. By contrast, Abey had a whopping 146 carries through five games, prompting many observers to wonder why the staff wasn’t doing more to get the ball into the hands of its most dangerous weapon.
Things began to go south for the Navy offense during a 30-27 loss to Memphis, which stacked the box with nine defenders to take away the inside running game. Abey made several bad decisions on perimeter option plays, including a couple poor pitches, and the Mids continuously attempted to pound the ball up the middle against a wall of defenders.
Other opponents employed a similar defensive game-plan featuring an eight-man front and suddenly the offense went stagnant. Navy averaged just over 23 points in five of the final six games of the regular season. Of course, the one good game for the offense during that stretch came when Perry ran wild to lead a 43-40 win against SMU.
“It’s just the way the season went. We started off great then the wheels came off,” Jasper said. “In one of the key games that we had to win, Malcolm gave us a spark and was a difference-maker.”
Abey started at Notre Dame when Perry was sidelined with an ankle injury and did so again at Houston with Perry returning to slotback. Niumatalolo and Jasper decided to unveil the secret weapon for the second time in the season against Army and Perry was spectacular again.
Watching Perry run for 532 yards and five touchdowns as a quarterback made the coaching staff realize he needed to play the position that handles the ball on every play.
“When you have a player that can make everyone else better because of what he can do with the football in his hands, that’s the guy you have to go with,” Jasper said. “Malcolm has a tremendous upside because he can make plays with his legs.”
Perry’s speed on the outside automatically forces opponents to respect the perimeter element of Navy’s triple-option. Having Perry at quarterback gives defensive coordinators one other wrinkle to worry about as he has proven adept at running the zone option out of shotgun formation.
“Having Malcolm at quarterback definitely gives opponents more to prepare for because he’s good under center and in the gun. Hopefully, that will help us out moving forward,” Jasper said. “We’ll put some things in specifically for Malcolm to take advantage of his abilities, but we’re not going to change too much. We’ll continued to do what we do on offense.”
The 5-foot-9 Perry is generously listed at 185 pounds, which he probably does not weigh at this point in the season. Jasper acknowledged that it will be important for the youngster to bulk up a bit during the offseason in order to withstand the pounding an option quarterback takes over the course of a 12-game season.
“We do need to put some weight and strength on Malcolm. I’d like to see him at around 195,” Jasper said. “That’s about what Keenan (Reynolds) weighed, and people forget that Keenan carried the ball 300 times one year. We can do that with Malcolm.”
Perry smiled and nodded his head when asked if he remembers the first day his dad gave him the keys to the car. In essence, that is what the Navy coaching staff is now doing — turning the controls of the offense over to the Tennessee native.
“I just want to come out to practice and get better every day, learn from my mistakes and do whatever I can to put my team in the best position to win,” Perry said.
Perry was asked last week if it was awkward to be taking the starting job away from Abey, who statistically enjoyed a solid season. Niumatalolo has not decided whether Abey will remain at quarterback or switch to another position, stating that he and Jasper will discuss the situation during the off-season.
“I really don’t think about it like that. We’re all good friends in that room and do whatever the coaches say. We all have each other’s back,” Perry said of overtaking both Abey and backup Garret Lewis on the depth chart. “Zach has helped me out a lot as far as learning what I need to learn. Zach just wants the team to win.”
Navy needs to get back to running the complete triple-option, which calls for the quarterback being able to read defenses at the line of scrimmage and make split-second decisions. Jasper could simply call a triple-option play and know that Reynolds would know whether to give the ball to the fullback, keep it himself or pitch to the slotback based off how the defense lined up and reacted.
“I know I still have a lot to learn about the offense. That is definitely the main focus for the offseason,” Perry said. “I’m definitely capable of getting to that field general type of position.”
Abey took a pounding while averaging more than 30 carries per game during Navy’s 5-0 start, which produced a No. 25 national ranking. The Pasadena resident was bothered by nagging shoulder and hip injuries for an extended period of time and needed a two-week layoff in order to get back to full strength.
Perry did not hesitate when asked whether he could take the punishment absorbed by an option quarterback over the course of an entire seasons.
“I definitely think I can handle it. I feel like my playing style helps out as far as being shifty and avoiding hits,” said Perry, while admitting he must get bigger and stronger. “I’m sure in the offseason we’ll get my body to where they want me to be.”
Thursday’s Military Bowl marks the first time Perry has gone into a game as the announced starter. He did not downplay the significance of being designated as the No. 1 quarterback.
“I think it’s an important chance to show what I can do, but also important for the team to show out,” he said. “The outcome of this game really matters because we want to carry momentum into the offseason.”
Jasper believes Perry’s development will be accelerated now that he is focusing solely on playing quarterback instead of flip-flopping between that position and slotback. Between now and next season, the offensive coordinator will be teaching the sophomore now to become a complete quarterback that can distribute the ball to all the weapons in the offense as opposed to feeling he needs to carry the team on his back.
“I’m not worried about expectations,” Perry said. “All I care about is getting wins. Whether I run for one yard or 250, if the team wins I’m happy.” Jasper reiterated the thrust of the offseason is getting the triple-option attack clicking on all cylinders and operating like a well-oiled machine once again.
“My whole thought process is focused on getting better as an entire offense. Because it doesn’t matter what formation we’re in if we keep making mistakes and getting behind as far as down and distance,” he said. “It’s all about discipline and execution. We need to get back to playing Navy football. We’ve got to be more fundamentally-sound.
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