Roughly half an hour after the Navy football team beat visiting Memphis on Saturday, wide receiver Jamir Tillman sat at a table during the postgame news conference fielding questions from members of the media. Seated to the left of the senior were slotback Dishan Romine and quarterback Will Worth.
A reporter asked Tillman whether Worth’s career-best performance during that afternoon’s 42-28 triumph was enough to make the Midshipmen forget about Keenan Reynolds, the program’s record-setting four-year starter who had graduated in the spring.
Tillman’s reply: “Who? There was somebody before Will?”
Laughter throughout the room ensued, but Tillman’s point was clear. The Midshipmen’s upswing, at least offensively, is a direct result of Worth’s rapid development from backup to starter firmly in command of the triple option.
Over the past two games, Worth has rushed for 316 combined yards, including 201 and three touchdowns on 31 carries against the Tigers. Two days later, he was named the American Athletic Conference’s offensive player of the week for a second time, in recognition of both that individual success and his directing of the Midshipmen to a season-high 447 rushing yards and a school-record 14th consecutive win at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
On Friday night, Worth will lead No. 22 Navy (5-1, 4-0) into Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium to face South Florida (6-2, 3-1), with the Midshipmen seeking to become bowl eligible for a fifth straight year and 13th time in 14 seasons. The game also serves as a homecoming for Worth, who grew up in Valrico, Fla., about 20 miles away, and played high school football at nearby Newsome.
“He’s playing well, but he’s playing a lot better than I thought he would play,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “The one thing that hasn’t surprised me, though, is his leadership has inspired the rest of our team. Just his toughness, the way he carries himself, I think it’s inspired everybody else to play harder and to give everything you have.”
Among Worth’s staunchest advocates has been offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper. When Worth ascended to the starting job in Week 2 after Tago Smith tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the season opener, it was Jasper who provided assurances that the offense would prosper. And since a hiccup Oct. 1 against Air Force, which limited the Midshipmen to 57 rushing yards in a 28-14 loss, Jasper’s foresight has been spot on.
One play in particular against Memphis underscored Jasper’s overflowing trust in Worth. The Tigers had drawn to within 28-21 late in the third quarter when Navy was facing fourth and four from the Memphis 18-yard line. Tigers Coach Mike Norvell called timeout with two seconds left in the quarter, compelling Niumatalolo to decide whether to go for it or attempt a field goal into a stiff wind.
When Niumatalolo elected to try to extend the drive, Jasper called for a play-action pass. Worth executed the fake to near perfection, allowing wide receiver Tyler Carmona to come wide open down the right side with nary a defender within tackling distance. The pass from Worth floated into Carmona’s arms for a 35-21 lead.
“I think that’s the biggest thing, just getting more and more comfortable with the game plan each and every week,” said Worth, whose primary responsibility last year was as a holder on PATs and field goals. “It’s been four years since I’ve started a football game [entering this season], so to be able to go out there each week and learn the nuances of the offense even more during live reps definitely helps.”
Worth is the first Navy player since Reynolds in 2014 to rush for 200 yards in a game, and his five touchdown passes are just four short of matching the most in a single season in Reynolds’s career. Worth, with potentially seven games left this year, needs eight more touchdown passes to equal Ricky Dobbs’s program high, set in 2010.
Worth has scored at least one touchdown in every game this season and leads Navy with nine rushing scores, tied for 14th most in major college football and second among quarterbacks. In addition, four of Worth’s past six pass attempts have resulted in touchdowns.
“It’s crazy. You take a kid who was third on the depth chart [last year], he moves up to one, and you see how he steps in and takes control of the team,” Tillman said. “He shows what our culture is, and that’s toughness. You see that passion. It’s not just about him. He’s going to celebrate with his teammates. That really goes through the whole team. We love him for that.”