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Bill Wagner: It appears Navy football has found its starting quarterback. He was on the roster all along. | COMMENTARY

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Navy quarterback Xavier Arline looks for a hole in the first quarter of Saturday's game against Alabama-Birmingham. Arline is the fourth starting quarterback for the Mids this season, but columnist Bill Wagner writes that he might've been the right person for the job all along.

Navy football has spent the entire season trying to settle on a starting quarterback.

It turns out the right man for the job was on the roster all along and not being used in any capacity.

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Xavier Arline spent most of the season standing on the sideline as a reserve slotback. He had four touches through seven games; two came in the season opener against Notre Dame.

Arline became the starting quarterback pretty much by default. He was basically the last resort after senior Tai Lavatai and sophomore Blake Horvath got hurt and freshman Braxton Woodson proved not ready for prime time.

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Navy’s revamped version of option offense requires a quarterback who is both an effective runner and passer. In two games as the starter, Arline has shown he can be that guy — totaling 208 rushing yards and 218 passing yards, while accounting for four touchdowns (two rushing, two passing).

That’s exactly the type of balance you want out of the position.

More importantly, Navy’s offense has looked functional again under the direction of Arline, a senior who has now played in 27 games with 11 starts as a quarterback. There were signs of life during the second half of the Temple game and that momentum carried over to the Alabama-Birmingham matchup Saturday.

Arline mostly made the right reads and the offense found some balance that had been sorely missing in totaling 363 yards to spark a 31-6 win. Fullback Alex Tecza did most of the damage inside with 82 yards on nine carries, while slotback Eli Heidenreich provided a perimeter threat with 60 yards on five carries.

Arline was efficient throwing the ball, completing 7 of 10 passes for 94 yards. He fired a deep dart to wide receiver Regis Velez for a 45-yard touchdown. The Midshipmen implemented some impressive short passing concepts in the second half with Arline connecting with Heidenreich and fellow slot Brandon Chatman for five throws totaling 51 yards.

Coach Brian Newberry noted a few weeks ago that Arline has improved as a passer and the past two games have supported that assessment. Arline delivered three beautiful balls against Temple, showing great touch on a 24-yard touchdown toss to Heidenreich and an ability to throw downfield on completions of 39 and 31 yards.

Flush with that success, Arline took exception to the career characterization that he could not pass. He’s played quarterback from the youth level on up and says completing passes has never been a problem.

“I know the narrative for a couple years now has been that I can’t really throw the football. I hope that [Temple performance] cleared things up a little for people that I can,” Arline said. “If there’s time and open receivers and the play call is right, I can make the throws.”

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Navy quarterback Xavier Arline throws a pass during a game against Temple on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. (Michael Nance/Navy Athletics)

To be honest, I’ve contributed to that narrative — writing in this space several times that passing was not a strength Arline possessed. That assessment was based on what I’d seen in games and the statistics supported it. Coming into this season, Arline had completed 15 of 41 passes (36%) for 254 yards and three touchdowns.

However, it should be pointed out that 30 of those pass attempts came when he was a freshman and sophomore. Last season, Arline threw touchdown passes of 23 and 20 yards in the fourth quarter of the Notre Dame game as Navy almost pulled off an improbable comeback.

Arline started the last four contests of 2022 after Lavatai suffered a season-ending injury. It was Arline who led Navy to its biggest win of the season, a 17-14 upset of 17th-ranked Central Florida.

It was somewhat understandable that Arline opened preseason camp tied with Lavatai for third on the depth chart. That was a function of the two seniors both missing spring practice — Lavatai while recovering from knee surgery, Arlline because he played varsity lacrosse and suffered an injury while doing so.

Sophomore Teddy Gleaton emerged from spring camp as the starting quarterback with classmate Horvath as the backup. Gleaton took himself out of the mix with academic problems, missing training camp practices during the week because he was taking summer school classes.

Horvath moved to the top of the depth chart with Lavatai ascending to the backup role. What was most curious was that Woodson was getting most of the third team repetitions instead of Arline.

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As best I could tell, Arline was never really part of the quarterback competition during preseason camp and that assessment was reinforced by the fact he was switched to slotback two weeks before the Aug. 26 opener against Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland.

Lavatai started that game and the next two against Wagner and Memphis. Horvath was promoted to starter for the North Texas game and it was a short-lived reign as he suffered a season-ending injury in the second quarter.

Woodson won the job going into the service academy showdown against Air Force and did not distinguish himself. That is how Navy finally got down to Arline, who became the team’s fourth different starting quarterback.

Reality is that had Lavatai and Horvath not gone down, Arline would never have been moved from slotback to quarterback.

Naturally, one wonders where Navy football would be if Arline had been the starter all along. There is really no fair way to make that judgment. Offense wasn’t the problem in losses to Memphis and South Florida as Navy put up 432 and 330 yards, respectively, in those two games.

As my friend Mike James of The Mid Report has pointed out, the offensive problems manifested during the Charlotte and Air Force games really had nothing to do with the quarterback.

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Those issues continued during the first half of the Temple game with Arline under center. It seems to me the success the Midshipmen found in the second half at Temple and against UAB were the result of better blocking, improved play-calling and Arline executing the option attack at a higher level.

It’s not worth looking back and wondering what might have been. Better to look forward and ask what can be. If Navy can take care of business on Senior Day and beat struggling East Carolina (2-8) it would move within one win of being bowl eligible.

Navy would then need to go on the road and upset SMU (8-2, 6-0) in order to qualify for the postseason. That would be a tall task considering the Mustangs are in the thick of the battle for the American Athletic Conference championship.

As much as going to a bowl would mean for the program, I can say with certainty that everyone involved with Navy football would rather beat Army. If the coaching staff sticks with Arline and builds some consistency at the quarterback position over the next three games, the Midshipmen would be in a better position to beat the Black Knights.


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