Abey happy to be back at the helm of Navy offense

Bill Wagner
Contact Reporterbwagner@capgaznews.com

Zach Abey is the absolute epitome of a Navy football player. Abey is extremely selfless, always puts the team first and does whatever he is told.

Proof that all that is true came during the offseason when Abey willingly agreed to switch to wide receiver despite posting the second-highest single-season rushing total in Navy football history while playing quarterback in 2017.

Typical of his personality, Abey dove head-first into learning how to play a new position at the highest level of college football. Navy’s wide receivers not only have to run precision passing routes and catch the football, but also must block at a very high level.

Remarkably, Abey made himself into a wide receiver over the course of August training camp and earned a starting spot for the season opener.

However, if you injected Abey with some truth serum and asked what position he preferred to play the answer would be quarterback. After all, the Pasadena resident has always been a quarterback beginning at the youth level.

In yet another surprising turn of events during a strange odyssey of a season, Abey reclaimed the starting quarterback job with a solid performance in practice last week. The 6-foot-2, 212-pound senior got the call against Cincinnati on Saturday and went the distance.

“It feels good to be back at the helm,” Abey said after practice on Tuesday night. “Senior year so you have that leadership role. That’s all I’ve got to do is be that leader out on the field.”

Abey has spent the entire season practicing as a wide receiver and attending meetings with that position group. There were a couple practice periods when Abey went with the quarterbacks, such as ball security drills and the goal-line package repetitions.

Abey has started six games at wide receiver, sitting out against Air Force because of a knee injury and serving as the backup quarterback versus Houston after Malcolm Perry was moved to slotback. It appeared at that point Abey might challenge Garret Lewis for the starting quarterback job, but he returned being a starting wide receiver against Notre Dame.

Lewis had made three straight starts at quarterback and seemingly had solidified the starting job. Needless to say, many Navy fans were no doubt stunned to see Abey line up under center when the offense took the field for the opening possession at Nippert Stadium on Saturday.

Having spent three years training to be an option quarterback and after taking all the starter’s repetitions in practice for most of last season, Abey said returning to the position full-time was very much like riding a bicycle.

“Being the short-yardage guy, I’ve been under center the whole season,” he said. “Not running the whole offense, but doing a lot of the same stuff. It really wasn’t that big of a change.”

Unfortunately, Navy’s offense was a no-show against Cincinnati – managing just 171 total yards in a 42-0 blowout. It was the first time the Midshipmen had been shut out since 2012.

It was far from being all Abey’s fault as mental mistakes, missed blocking assignments and penalties all conspired to set the offense back. However, the quarterback did not grade out real high either.

“I definitely messed some things up, had some missed reads and missed assignments,” Abey admitted. “I don’t think anyone played a perfect game, and you’re not going to when you get shut out like that and can’t even score a touchdown.”

Head coach Ken Niumatalolo offered a similar assessment when asked about Abey’s performance in his first game as a starting quarterback since a Nov. 24, 2017 loss to Houston.

“I thought Zach did OK. He didn’t turn the ball over so that was good. For the most part he got us in the right plays and got the ball to the right person,” Niumatalolo said. “We have to make sure recognition-wise that he can see things and know what (the defense) is doing. That’s probably the next phase.”

Niumatalolo said the entire offense deserves blame for the debacle at Cincinnati and noted it was difficult to evaluate the quarterback because so many things were going wrong. The 11th-year head coach declined to say whether or not Abey had earned another start or whether the competition between him and Lewis would continue this week.

“Zach did some good things, but we still scored zero points. It’s hard to say when you don’t score any points,” Niumatalolo said. “We have to evaluate every position, not just quarterback. I think everything is up for grabs.”

Abey returned to the quarterback meeting room last week and acknowledged it was “fun” being back with offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper. “That’s all I knew up until this season,” he said.

Jasper personally tutors the Navy quarterbacks and said the decision to start Abey on Saturday was based off the hope he could bring his interior power running ability to the table. Abey had a few good gains between the tackles against Cincinnati, but five sacks and wound up with 33 net rushing yards on 28 attempts.

It was a deceiving total because Abey actually gained 79 yards running the ball, but the sacks accounted for 37 negative yards.

“Zach played well and did some good things. It’s all about operating the offense and running the ball with some physicality, which he did,” Jasper said. “I thought Zach did his job. We just have to continue to bring the whole offense along.”

Abey was not at all happy about what happened in Cincinnati, but has already moved on and is hopeful of directing a much better offensive effort if called upon to start at quarterback again this Saturday at Central Florida.

“It’s something you have to learn from, go back to the drawing board and get better. I have to motivate the guys that we’re going to come back this week,” he said. “This is a whole new game this week. We have to learn from what we did last week and just go out and play.”

Abey was a bit more demonstrative following Saturday’s embarrassing loss, which was the sixth straight for Navy. He was asked what needs to be done in order for the Midshipmen to turn around this season.

“We have to reach within. We’ve been making personnel changes throughout the year so it’s not that. It’s something from within that we haven’t found yet,” Abey said. “As seniors, we have to take control of this team, find out what the problem is and fix it. This is not Navy football.”

BARRETT RETIRES: Senior offensive lineman Bryan Barrett has seen his football career come to a premature end.

Niumatalolo confirmed after Tuesday’s practice that Barrett is no longer on the Navy football team because he is focused on meeting Naval Academy requirements for graduation.

All Navy linemen – both offensive and defensive – must lose weight following their senior season in order to be commissioned as an officer. A memo detailing the physical education requirements for graduation from the Naval Academy state that midshipmen must have a body fat percentage of 22 percent.

Barrett, a product of Denton, Texas, was listed on the Navy roster this season at 6-foot-3, 324 pounds. The backup center had played in five games this season with the last one being Temple on Oct. 13.

Sources told The Capital that Barrett stopped playing football so he could begin the process of losing the necessary weight immediately.

“We’re trying to help Bryan Barrett the person. The main thing is getting him graduated,” Niumatalolo said.

INJURY REPORT: Starting safety Jake Springer was a late scratch for the Cincinnati game. Niumatalolo said Springer, who is also the primary kickoff returner, suffered an injury during a drill in practice on Thursday. .

“It’s unfortunate because Jake is one of our starters and best players,” Niumatalolo said.

Springer was in full uniform for practice on Tuesday, but did not participate in any live drills. Niumatalolo was confident the sophomore standout, who has 22 tackles and two interceptions, will be able to play this Saturday at Central Florida.

“He is getting better and hopefully will be able to practice tomorrow,” Niumatalolo said.

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