Navy quarterback Zach Abey spent hours during the summer doing homework assigned by offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper.
Abey is hoping the extra work will enable him to take full control of the Midshipmen's triple-option offense this fall.
"Coach Jasper, with all of the tests, forced me to look back into film to pick out all of the minor details," Abey said. "It gave me a chance to look inside Coach Jasper's mind. I think that's a big thing with this offense, and that's knowing what coach Jasper wants and just knowing what he's thinking when he is giving me a play. Having the homework and all of the tests helped."
Abey, a junior from Archbishop Spalding, made his first career start last season against Army, replacing injured starter Will Worth in one of college football's greatest rivalries. Abey had some early nerves that led to a shaky first half marred by a pair of interceptions, but he settled down during the final two quarters and ran for a pair of touchdowns to keep the Midshipmen within striking distance before falling, 21-17.
It was an admirable showing for a young player thrown into the national spotlight. Almost two weeks later in the Armed Forces Bowl against Louisiana Tech, Abey ran for 114 yards and two touchdowns and threw for 159 yards and another score before leaving with a rib injury during a 48-45 loss.
This year, Abey entered preseason camp as the No. 1 quarterback on the depth chart. While he is the leading candidate to start, he is facing some tough competition, most notably from junior Garret Lewis.
Malcolm Perry, who is projected as a slotback, can also play quarterback, and the coaches have not entirely ruled out using him in that role. Perry gained national attention last season when he was pulled from the stands against Fordham to serve as an emergency backup quarterback when starter Tago Smith went down with a season-ending knee injury in the first game of 2016.
Still, Abey plans to take advantage of his opportunity.
"I feel comfortable under center and am playing with confidence," Abey said. "The biggest thing Coach Jasper told me to work on during this camp was playing with confidence. Just knowing what I am doing out there will have everyone on the offense trusting me."
Navy returns 46 letter-winners, including 12 starters, from a team that went 9-5 overall last season, including a 28-27 win against Notre Dame. The Midshipmen finished 7-1 in the American Athletic Conference, winning the West Division title before losing to Temple, 34-10, in the conference championship game.
Navy opens the 2017 campaign at Florida Atlantic Sept.1.
Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo has felt good energy from the current group of players. He has overseen a program that has been bowl eligible in 13 of the past 14 seasons, and he expects this year's squad to accomplish even more goals.
"I feel really optimistic about this team," Niumatalolo said. "All of our seniors took great leadership in our team, our offseason workouts and their approach to spring practice. ... These guys took great initiative. I am just very pleased on and off the field. Academically, our guys did real well over the summer. They worked hard."
One of Navy's main goals this season is to beat Army and Air Force to reclaim the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy. Last season, Navy fell to the Falcons, 28-14, and then was upset by the Black Knights in Baltimore. The loss to Army snapped a 14-game winning streak against Navy's archrival.
Niumatalolo, however, is not concerned about streaks. He is focused on winning games -- all of them, regardless of the opponent. Nonetheless, this year's matchup against Army in Philadelphia Dec. 9 will inevitably be another season-defining game. Niumatalolo said last year's setback will have no impact on the current team.
"We have great respect for them and the other service academies," Niumatalolo said. "But we try to win every year. People always talked about the streak before. We never talked about it. In this sport, you can't look in the past, good or bad. You have to press forward. I never try to establish a rivalry. It's game-by-game, year-by-year, and you want to beat them every year. That's everybody on our schedule."
The Mids took their coach's advice and are determined to look ahead.
"Last year, I definitely felt bad for the senior class," said senior outside linebacker D.J. Palmore, who was named a co-captain with slot back Darryl Bonner. "The only thing we're bringing into this year is experience. We're just going to win those games this year. There's no hard feeling against [those teams], but that's just what we're going to have to do."
Navy's defense plans to play more aggressively this season. Several teams in the AAC like to throw the ball downfield, so the Mids need to counter with balance between an effective secondary and an aggressive pass rush, which will prevent opposing quarterbacks from having time to find receivers.
"We want to play tight coverage and try to get some sacks," linebacker Micah Thomas said.
One of the keys for Navy will be staying healthy. The team was hampered by injuries last season to key contributors, including a pair of starting quarterbacks who were lost for the season.
As Niumatalolo often says, his attention is focused on the present and his sights set on the future. And so far, the Navy coach likes what he sees.
"[There's] something about this team" Niumatalolo said. "There's a humility. There's a drive. I kind of sense they want something really bad. I have been pleased by our work effort. Not a lot of fanfare. Guys are just working."
Issue 236: August 2017