Abey takes reins of Navy's triple-option offense
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 31, 2017
Ivin Jasper can’t really describe “the look” in words, but Navy’s veteran offensive coordinator knows it when he sees it.
Jasper saw it in the eyes of former Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds when he took the field for his first career start at Central Michigan. Jasper saw it on the face of New England Patriots great Tom Brady as he prepared to direct the game-winning drive against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
Zach Abey did not have “the look” during spring practice and that concerned Jasper, who assigned Navy’s projected starting quarterback a load of summer homework as a result. Abey was asked to immerse himself in the playbook and review considerable film in order to gain a better grasp of the program’s patented triple-option offense. Jasper issued regular tests to determine whether his pupil was learning what was needed.
Abey’s education has continued during August training camp, and with the season opener at Florida Atlantic looming, the professor is pleased with the progress.
“Zach is coming along real well. We’ll know for sure on Friday night, but for now I’m very pleased. He’s doing the right things and making good decisions,” Jasper said. “It’s just a matter of being more consistent.”
During Navy’s intra-squad scrimmages, held the last two Fridays at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Jasper mimicked the opposing defensive coordinator and constantly changed fronts. He employed different formations and ordered defenders to change positions prior to the snap in order to confuse the quarterback.
Navy’s triple-option offense is dependent upon the quarterback being able to read the defensive alignment and make checks at the line of scrimmage. Opponents know this and routinely shift personnel after initially lining up in order to disguise the formation.
“Zach is the head of the snake now. He needs to get us into the right play,” Jasper said. “Over the last few weeks, we’ve thrown a lot of different looks at Zach during practice. He’s getting more comfortable every single day. He’s been more vocal, which is a big key. He’s communicating to the offensive line about who to block and telling the skill guys where to go.”
Abey became the first quarterback in Navy history to make his first career start against archrival Army. It was an impossible situation for an untested sophomore, whose first meaningful college action came the Saturday prior.
Season-long starter Will Worth, who enjoyed a spectacular senior season, suffered a broken foot in the first half of the American Athetic Conference Championship game and that thrust Abey into the spotlight. Jasper and head coach Ken Niumatalolo had one week to get the Pasadena resident ready for the Army-Navy game, which was played at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
Abey was clearly nervous and looked like a deer in the headlights during the first half, throwing two costly interceptions and making numerous mental mistakes. The Archbishop Spalding product settled down in the second half and rushed for two touchdowns to briefly give Navy the lead.
Niumatalolo noted that Friday night’s opener at FAU Stadium will seem like a walk in the park by comparison to the Army-Navy game.
“There’s nothing we can do to simulate the Army-Navy game. So Zach had the most pressure-cooker atmosphere you could ever dream of. There’s not going to be any game more pressure-packed than that,” Niumatalolo said last week.
Navy’s coaching staff was encouraged that Abey turned around two weeks later and played well in the Armed Forces Bowl, accounting for 273 yards of total offense and four touchdowns. He rushed for a career-high 114 yards and two touchdowns and completed 7 of 12 passes for 159 yards and two other scores in a 48-45 shootout loss to Louisiana Tech.
“I thought Zach bounced back and played really good in the bowl game,” Niumatalolo said.
However, Jasper was disappointed the youngster did not solidify his hold on the starting job during spring drills. Abey seemed unsure of himself at times and committed numerous miscues. It was clear to the offensive coordinator that his quarterback did not fully understand the triple-option offense.
However, the summer homework followed by four weeks of preseason practice has provided Abey with a more solid foundation.
“I’m feeling more comfortable. It’s been a long summer working with Coach Jasper, but I think it’s paying off,” Abey said after practice on Tuesday. “It definitely helped to see things visually on paper and on film, but then I had to apply it on the field when everything is happening fast.”
Jasper said going into August that he wanted to see Abey show more confidence. Jasper, whom Niumatalolo has often described as a Jedi master, pointed out that confidence comes with knowledge.
“When Coach Jasper says confidence he means me knowing what I’m doing and presenting that to the rest of the team,” Abey said. “Just being able to see things right away and get us into the right play.”
Jasper watched Abey’s confidence grow right before his eyes this summer. During those Friday scrimmages, when the defense was jumping in and out of different formations, the quarterback knew exactly what was happening and how to adjust.
“Zach has grown up and seems to know what he’s looking at now,” Jasper said. “Physically, he has all the tools to be a great quarterback for this team. He just needed to get the mental part of the game down. Now it’s just a matter of going out there on Friday night and performing under the lights.”
Niumatalolo believes the criticism he received from the coaching staff during the spring instilled a sense of urgency in Abey. At the same time, the 10th-year head coach believes the 6-foot-2, 212-pound junior is not allowing the pressure of being the starter to consume him.
During the spring, I think Zach was a little tight. This summer, I think he’s relaxed and let his abilities take over,” Niumatalolo said. “Having been in the Army game and the bowl game, Zach recognizes how important it is to be totally dialed in. He’s come with a renewed focus in practice and that’s made a big difference.”
Many national pundits have picked Navy to finish near the bottom of the American Athletic Conference this season, citing a dropoff in performance at the quarterback position as a major reason why. Abey was asked how it feels to have so many so-called experts doubting his ability to execute the triple-option offense.
“At the end of the day, I’m going to play football to the best of my ability. I don’t really read any of that crap so I don’t let it bother me,” he said. “I definitely feel like I have a lot to prove. I think we all do as an offense. Just coming off a three-game losing streak (to close last season) gives us a big chip on the shoulder.”
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