Navy football Coach Ken Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper have never been concerned about the physical abilities of quarterback Zach Abey.
Abey, a 6-foot-2, 212-pound junior, was a three-sport athlete at Archbishop Spalding High, excelling at wrestling and rugby as well as football.
Coaches mention toughness and athleticism when describing Abey, last year’s third-string quarterback who was forced into the starter’s role for last season’s Army-Navy game while the two quarterbacks in front of him, Tago Smith and Will Worth, sat injured.
But Niumatalolo and Jasper’s main focus this training camp has been building Abey’s confidence entering Friday’s season opener at Florida Atlantic, where he will be the undisputed starter.
Pressed into duty last season, Abey went 20 for 35 for 352 yards passing and four interceptions with 384 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
He played a lot in the final three games — in the American Athletic Conference title game against Temple (which he entered early in the second quarter after Worth suffered a broken foot), against Army and in the Armed Forces Bowl against Louisiana Tech.
Navy lost all three games to finish 9-5. Most scarring: Against Army, Abey threw two interceptions in a 21-17 loss that snapped the Midshipmen’s record 14-game winning streak in the series.
He emerged from that wild experience understanding he had a lot to learn about Navy’s triple-option offense and just as much to learn about leadership.
“Getting thrown in last year, I didn’t have that bond that Will had with the offensive linemen, with the seniors,” Abey said. “It was a sophomore going and trying to lead. . . . So this year in spring ball, that’s what I had to work on mostly. What was really nice was over the summer just being with the guys.
“I think you can tell this camp how much more comfortable I am with everyone. I can see the trust they have in me, and it helps that I know more of what’s going on, too. They trust me, and I trust myself more.”
Jasper said he has seen a change in Abey, a confidence bordering on cockiness that the coach likened to Tom Brady’s demeanor in leading the New England Patriots to a comeback win in the most recent Super Bowl.
“Now, I know he’s not Tom Brady,” Jasper said of Abey. “But it’s just the confidence look, that’s all. Tom Brady, when he was doing that last drive [in the Super Bowl], he thought, ‘I’m going to score. I know what I’m doing. I got the game plan in my mind.’ I’m hoping for that look, that certain look you have as a quarterback in this offense. And it’s getting there.”
Feeling comfortable in the starting spot came from repetition in practice and a team camping trip to Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
Leadership know-how comes, in part, from looking to Midshipmen captains Darryl Bonner and D.J. Palmore.
“It’s him asking,” Palmore said. “It’s stuff like, when he does have that bad day, how does he go and present himself to the team?”
But nothing is more critical to a triple-option quarterback’s confidence than the mental side of the game: Knowing the offense, being able to read defenses and making decisions on the fly.
To shore him up mentally, Jasper assigned Abey summer homework, meaning lots of film study.
When Jasper took time off to be with his 14-year-old son, who was hospitalized in late July with a rare heart condition, he was in and out of fall camp for a few weeks; Mike Judge took over working with the quarterbacks. When Jasper returned to practice, Abey was on schedule.
“I ran the scout-team defense when we had a scrimmage,” Jasper said. “I was sitting there watching him, and everything he did was confidence. He was barking out certain things to the offensive line, looking for certain things that were coming — so he understood what the play call was — what the danger was from the defense, and he alerted guys to it.”
By his own admission, Abey will never be the most vocal leader. He’s not likely to yell in a teammates’ face to pump him up before a game, but he will pull a player aside in practice to ask about his family. He’s quieter and shy at first, so signs of self-assurance might not be obvious to those outside the locker room.
Even so, Abey feels there’s no comparison between the player he is now and the player he was last season. “The look,” his coaches agree, will come in due time.
“He recognizes that in this game, this sport, you’ve got to produce,” Niumatalolo said. “So I think as he plays well, guys will get more and more confident. But I know everybody likes what they see so far. I know I do.”
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