Navy moves former starting quarterback Zach Abey to wide receiver
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital (Tribune News Service) | Published: April 30, 2018
Navy football released an updated depth chart on Monday and there was one major surprise.
Archbishop Spalding product Zach Abey was listed as a co-starter at wide receiver. That would be the same Zach Abey who was Navy’s starting quarterback for most of last season.
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo announced in December, after the Army-Navy game and before the Military Bowl, that Malcolm Perry would be moving to quarterback full-time and would be the starter in 2018.
However, the plan at that point was for Abey to serve as the backup quarterback and still see action in short-yardage and goal-line situations. That strategy worked well against Virginia in the Military Bowl as Abey was named Most Valuable Player after rushing for 88 yards and five touchdowns.
Neither Perry nor Abey participated in live drills during spring camp with Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper saying the focus for both was on improving as passers.
Significant progress was made in that department as Niumatalolo came away pleased with how the two quarterbacks performed in skeleton and one-on-one passing drills.
So the post-spring practice decision to move Abey to wide receiver was completely unexpected. Niumatalolo made the move after discussing the situation with Jasper and Abey.
“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.”
Many observers figured Abey would make an ideal fullback in Navy’s triple-option system since he has proven such a powerful inside runner. Indeed, the 6-foot-2, 212-pounder did most of his damage between the tackles in rushing for 1,413 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2017.
Abey’s single-season rushing total ranks second all-time at Navy behind legendary tailback Napoleon McCallum (1,587, 1983). “When is the last time a 1,400-yard rusher got benched?” Niumatalolo mused.
Abey had a brief audition at fullback prior to the Military Bowl and did not fare so well. Niumatalolo said it takes years of training to become an effective option fullback because there are so many different elements that factor in.
Navy fullbacks must learn how to come out of a three-point stance while starting extremely close to the line of scrimmage is one. Getting accustomed to the mesh with the quarterback is another component. Even the best Navy fullbacks said it took tons of game repetitions to begin seeing the holes correctly and getting a feel for when to make cuts.
“First of all, we’re pretty well-stocked at fullback. We like a lot of the players we have there. Meanwhile, we have a lot of young, unproven players at wide receiver,” Niumatalolo said. “Also, there just isn’t enough time to teach Zach how to play fullback. Wide receiver is an easier transition and gives Zach a better chance of making an impact next season. We just feel this is a better way to use Zach’s talents.”
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.
Navy’s wide receivers are blockers, first and foremost, with catching passes a secondary requirement. Niumatalolo believes Abey has the size, strength and toughness to be a effective blocker on the perimeter.
Niumatalolo is intrigued by the prospect of having a former quarterback with passing and running capability playing wide receiver. “It opens up a lot of different possibilities offensively,” he said.
Of course, Navy would not have moved Abey to wide receiver had the coaching staff not felt confident in the other backup quarterbacks. Perry sustained an injury during the third quarter of the Military Bowl and Abey wound up playing quarterback the rest of the game. There have been very few seasons since the Midshipmen installed the triple-option that one quarterback went the distance.
“Obviously, the emergence of Garret Lewis and the development of Dalen Morris allowed us to move Zach,” Niumatalolo said. “Garret had a really good spring and has come along really well. Dalen is very talented and has a promising future.”
Abey is already listed even atop the depth chart with rising sophomore Ryan Mitchell at the “X” wide receiver spot. Niumatalolo said the Pasadena resident will have to perform during preseason camp in August to stay there.
“We’re starting Zach high on the depth chart because he has earned that. We’ll see how this experiment goes during August camp and where he ends up,” Niumatalolo said. “Zach is such a tough, unselfish kid… I’m praying that he will do well. If it works out, we’ll be a much better team with Zach playing wide receiver most of the time and quarterback some of the time.”
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