Navy starting quarterback for Saturday up in air as Abey sits out Monday practice
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. | Published: November 7, 2017
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Navy’s starting quarterback for Saturday’s game against Southern Methodist University remains in question as season-long starter Zach Abey is still nursing a shoulder injury.
Abey hurt his left (non-throwing) shoulder midway through the fourth quarter of Thursday night’s game against Temple. The Archbishop Spalding product was exposed while throwing a pass and absorbed a hard hit from linebacker Shaun Bradley.
Abey was dressed for practice, but did not take live repetitions on Monday. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo indicated that was for precautionary reasons.
“We want to give Zach another day to rest. We’re thinking that he’ll be able to go tomorrow,” Niumatalolo said of Abey, who has started 11 straight games dating back to last season.
If Abey’s shoulder injury does not heal sufficiently enough over the course of the week, backup Garret Lewis would presumably elevate to the top of the depth chart. Lewis played the last quarter and a half against Central Florida after Abey suffered a concussion and directed Navy’s last two possessions at Temple after the starter was again sidelined.Lewis, who had not seen any varsity action before being inserted into the UCF game, has not been much of a running threat so far — gaining 38 yards on 13 carries. However, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound junior has displayed solid passing ability — completing 9 of 18 attempts for 166 yards and two touchdowns.
Niumatalolo was reluctant to compare Abey and Lewis since they are different style quarterbacks.
“Zach has rushed for 1,200 yards so obviously he’s been a heck of a player for us,” Niumatalolo said. “To Garret’s strengths — he’s a good athlete, a really good passer, makes quick decisions with the ball. He’s been a quarterback his whole life so he has that mentality. He knows our offense very well, and he’s a hard worker.”
Lewis made a pair of superb passes for touchdowns of 16 and 8 yards to wide receivers Tyler Carmona and Brandon Colon during the Temple game. The Alabama native, who came out of a passing offense at Sipsey Valley High, has nice form and touch.
“Garret definitely throws a nice ball, and he throws it on time. He’s a really good passer,” Niumatalolo said.
Niumatalolo was non-committal when asked who would become the backup quarterback if Abey cannot play on Saturday. Freshmen Reggie Hayes and Dalen Morris have both been listed third on the depth chart at times this season.
“We’ve got some other guys working and we’ll see how it goes,” he said.
Abey has been a workhorse for Navy so far this season, rushing for 1,202 yards and 13 touchdowns on 233 carries. The 6-foot-2, 212-pound junior has done most of his damage inside on designed keepers or mid-line option plays.
“Obviously, Zach is not a perimeter carrier. He’s strong off-tackle and between the tackles,” Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said.
Lewis has come into games that Navy trailed and pretty much had to throw the ball. There has not been enough of a sample size to describe Lewis as a runner and determine whether he would be more effective than Abey on the perimeter.
“Garret was definitely a passing quarterback (in high school),” said Jasper, adding that Lewis has adjusted to running the triple-option. “As far as mechanics, engineering the offense and reading it — he is pretty good at that. He can handle the football.”
There was a point during spring practice when Abey was struggling and Lewis was playing with confidence that Jasper might have started the latter over the former. However, Lewis suffered a knee injury late in spring camp and that proved a setback.
Lewis underwent surgery during the offseason and has recovered completely, although he wears a knee brace during practice and games.
“One thing I like about Garret is that he’s hungry to prove everybody wrong. He’s a competitor and wants to be the guy. You always want to see that in your quarterback,” said Jasper, who is also the quarterbacks coach. “As the week goes along, if Zach can’t go, Garret will be ready to play and can go out and get the job done.”
Navy’s offense looked disjointed and out of sync against Temple – producing just five first downs, 107 yards and 13 points through three quarters. The Midshipmen mounted a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes when the Owls were pretty much playing prevent defense.
Navy finished with a season-low 136 rushing yards on 52 attempts, an average of 2.6 yards per carry. Abey was limited to 60 yards on 25 carries while starting fullback Chris High managed only 38 yards on 12 totes.
Temple followed the lead of Memphis and Central Florida by playing an eight-man front. The Owls sometimes showed a 50 formation, often known as the “Bear defense.”
“I saw a group of guys that weren’t prepared, and that comes back to me. It was two defensive fronts that we’ve seen all season long and we just didn’t execute,” Jasper said. “When that happens, you have to look at your game-plan as a coach and the plays you are calling.”
Jasper said he did considerable soul-searching over the weekend asked himself if he was putting the players in position to be successful.
“Apparently, we’re not doing that because our kids just are not getting it done,” Jasper said in answering his own rhetorical question. “So you have to go back to the drawing board, look at everything we’re doing and fix it.”
Execution has always been the hallmark of Navy’s triple-option offense. Opponents pretty much know what the Midshipmen are going to do, but cannot stop it. Jasper said there have been missed blocks here and there, but for the most part the recent problems have not been the result of the Mids simply getting beaten physically.
“It comes down to execution. There were enough good plays in there that it could have been a lot better. We just didn’t get it done,” Jasper said in reference to the offensive performance versus Temple. “When I look and see simple plays, basic plays that we’re not executing — that comes back to me. It means I’m not doing something right. I have to find out what’s wrong and get it fixed… get it fixed fast.”
Jasper acknowledged the perimeter aspect of Navy’s triple-option offense has been lacking. Quarterbacks and fullbacks have accounted for 387 of the 496 rushing attempts by the Mids this season. A big reason for that disparity has been that Jasper has been playing to Abey’s strengths as an interior runner.
“It comes down to taking what the defense gives you. We have to manufacture ways to get the ball on the perimeter. That has worked for us at times this season,” Jasper said. “So you take what they give you, but also find other ways to get the ball to your playmakers. That falls back on me.”
Navy’s offense has been inconsistent during the team’s current three-game losing streak. Jasper did not hesitate when asked if he expected future opponents to employ the eight-man front that has given the Mids so much trouble of late.
“Obviously. When you struggle against certain looks, opponents are going to copycat. We’ll be looking for it and prepared for it,” he said.