Starting quarterback struggles during Navy football scrimmage
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital (Tribune News Service) | Published: April 2, 2017
Navy was running a two-minute drill during a scrimmage situation on Saturday morning when offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper was forced to scream timeout from the sideline.
Valuable seconds were ticking away and starting quarterback Zach Abey had not thought to call the timeout himself. The Archbishop Spalding product got an earful from Jasper about that mistake, which could prove costly in a contest that counted.
Jasper also screamed at Abey for throwing a pass up for grabs when his receiver was out of bounds and therefore not eligible to make the catch. Jasper emphatically made it clear that the only possible results of such a decision were an incompletion or an interception.
Navy football scrimmaged for about an hour on Saturday morning and one clear conclusion was that Abey still has a long way to go when it comes to taking command of the triple-option offense.
Jasper said going into spring camp that Abey needed to move from Jedi status to Yoda level with regard to taking charge of the huddle and mastering the unique attack.
"No, not yet," Jasper said when asked afterward if Abey is making progress from apprentice to master. "Having played the last three games of the season, I wanted him to be a lot further ahead, but he's not. He's struggling right now. He struggled with some checks today."
Abey played the second half of the American Athletic Conference championship against Temple then started the Army-Navy game and Armed Forces Bowl. The Pasadena resident now feels the burden of being the clear-cut starter who is expected to lead the offense.
"Zach is the guy now so there is definitely a lot of pressure. I put pressure on him every day in practice. He's got to step up," Jasper said.
Abey did have some nice runs and completed some passes, but also stood in the pocket too long a few times. The 6-foot-2, 212-pound rising junior is wearing a green non-contact jersey and therefore cannot be tackled. That makes it tough to know whether he would have been sacked on certain pass plays or would have broken a tackle on various run plays.
Navy's other quarterbacks -- rising junior Garret Lewis along with current freshmen Jonan Llanusa and Jacob Harrison -- are live. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo said that's the only way for the coaching staff to truly gauge their capabilities.
"I know Zach Abey can run the ball. I've seen him in live games. I know what he can do," Niumatalolo said. "These other guys haven't really shown anything yet."
Llanusa looked good during Saturday's scrimmage, breaking several nice runs and completing numerous passes. The 6-foot-1, 199-pounder threw a dart down the middle to slotback Cameron Dudeck, who got behind the defense and caught the pass in stride for a long touchdown.
A little later, Llanusa rifled a short pass to fellow freshman Darian Pride along the left sideline. Pride, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound Tennessee resident, made a nice move to beat the cornerback then outraced several chasing defenders down the sideline for a 70-yard touchdown.
"My biggest thing with Jonah is just being physical. We know he's a really good athlete. I want to see him run between the tackles," Jasper said. "The QB runs a lot in this offense and has to be a physical ballcarrier. Today, Jonah showed that. He was very physical. He showed some confidence and made some plays. I was definitely pleased with what I saw out of him today."
Jasper noted that Llanusa was working against the third string defense and needs to show he can make the same runs and throws when facing the front-liners. Lewis, who broke a long run off a delayed draw, remains No. 2 on the depth chart ahead of Llanusa.
"Garrett has shown a lot of maturity. During winter workouts, he was always right there challenging Zach. He wants to be the guy. I've very pleased with his mindset right now," Jasper said.
Jasper said none of the returning quarterbacks are where Navy needs them to be and may need the rest of spring drills along with August training camp to get there.
"Really, they're all struggling. When that happens, it's on me. It's my responsibility to get these guys ready," Jasper said. "It's a process to get them all prepared and we'll keep working at it."
Navy ran approximately 80 plays during the scrimmage portion of Saturday's practice and Niumatalolo felt the defense carried the day. While the offense had a few explosive plays, it struggled to move the ball consistently.
"I thought the defense played well today. I was encouraged. I loved the aggressiveness of the defense. I thought guys were flying around," Niumatalolo said. "Offensively, we're still a work in progress. We have to continue to get better on offense."
Outside linebacker D.J. Palmore, the defensive captain, was in the backfield way too much while the defensive line controlled the point of attack. Navy's fullbacks found very little running room on the dive while slotbacks were being chased down after taking the pitch.
Jasper was disappointed with the blocking as a whole, and that includes the skill position players in addition to the offensive line. Navy's starting line was not at full strength as starting left guard Robert Lindsey did not participate in the scrimmage while starting right tackle Andrew Wood got hurt early and did not return.
Current sophomore Laurent Njiki took the majority of repetitions with the first team while Adam Amosa-Tagovailoa and Kendel Wright split time at right tackle after Wood went down.
"We have a chance to be a good offensive football team. I think we have all the right parts in place. We just have to get tougher," Jasper said. "Today, the defense got after us and hit us in the mouth. We have to block people. We have to put our pads down, come off the ball and knock people back."
Several players coming off injuries or surgeries along with those that don't need to prove anything were held out of the scrimmage. Most of them are on the offensive side of the ball with fullback Chris High as well as slotbacks Josh Brown and Josh Walker joining Lindsey on the sidelines. All those players are sporting green jerseys and participate in non-contact portions of practice.
Niumatalolo said Navy is spending half of each practice preparing for American Athletic Conference opponents and the other half going against itself. Special teams periods are built into each session.
"We're just building our culture, learning how to play," he said. "If there's anything we'll get out of spring that I'll be happy with it's offense taking care of the ball, defense running to the ball. Schematic stuff will come. We're looking at some new things on both sides of the ball. I'm not as concerned with Xs and Os. That will come. It's the more the culture of how we play football."
Navy is midway through spring camp, having held eight of the NCAA allowed 15 practices.
Every repetition counts, and the Navy coaching staff spends hours reviewing videotape of each practice to focus on individual players. Wide receiver Jordan Pittman made the most of his opportunity, which came on the final series of the scrimmage and featured players very low on the depth chart.
Pittman made a pair of spectacular catches, leaping high to take a 50-50 ball away from the cornerback covering him. The Bowie resident and DeMatha Catholic graduate is a career reserve, serving as a tight end on the scout team last season.
"Pittman is a guy who has raised some eyebrows," Jasper said. "We'll continue to evaluate him, but we're definitely pleased with some of the things we've seen. Going up to compete for the ball and coming down with it, that's always a huge positive."
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