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Navy might air it out more to take advantage of QB Dalen Morris’ throwing ability

Junior Mychal Cooper, shown making a 32-yard touchdown catch against Tulane, is one of many weapons in the Navy passing game.
Junior Mychal Cooper, shown making a 32-yard touchdown catch against Tulane, is one of many weapons in the Navy passing game. (Chris Graythen / Getty Images)

What a difference a week makes.

At this time last week, a disappointed Dalen Morris watched from the sideline as freshman Xavier Arline took all the first-team repetitions at quarterback during practice. Morris had been benched, losing the starting spot after just one miserable half in a season-opening 55-3 loss to BYU.

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Now Morris is the toast of the town, having directed the greatest comeback in Navy football history to produce a 27-24 defeat of Tulane. He is being hailed as a hero after coming off the bench to spark the Midshipmen, who trailed 24-0 at halftime.

Not surprisingly, Morris was named Offensive Player of the Game by the Navy coaching staff and Athlete of the Week by the Naval Academy Athletic Association. He was one of eight quarterbacks named “Stars of the Week” by The Manning Award.

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Most importantly, Morris was reinstated as the starting quarterback and will make his service academy debut when Navy travels to Colorado Springs to take on Air Force on Oct. 3.

“I told Dalen going into the [Tulane] game to just stay ready. Be patient and persevere because there’s going to be a time of second chance and take full advantage of it,” Navy offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper said.

That opportunity for redemption came much faster than expected and Morris was ready, jump-starting the offense with his passing ability and leading the triple-option attack with confidence.

The Midshipmen managed only 59 total yards and three first downs during the first half. Navy piled up 291 yards in the second half with Morris using the pass to set up the run.

Morris completed six of 11 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown, loosening up a Tulane defense that had been aggressively crowding the line of scrimmage to stop the run. He set up Navy’s first touchdown with a 44-yard pass to Mark Walker then later delivered a 32-yard scoring strike to Mychal Cooper.

Navy completed the rally and tied the score at 24 when Morris rolled out and found Devin Mathews, open in the back of the end zone for a 2-point conversion pass.

“We called some play-action and guys were running wide-open,” Jasper said of the passing success. “Dalen did a good job of staying in the pocket; Got back, set his feet and turned it loose.”

Coach Ken Niumatalolo said the plan going into the season was to use the strong throwing ability of Morris to complement Navy’s triple-option rushing attack. There were no signs of either during the beatdown by BYU and the offense was still nonexistent during the first half at Tulane.

“What we saw in the second half is what we had envisioned: Our offense with effective, efficient passing,” Niumatalolo said.

Since installing the triple-option in 2002, Navy has used its powerful rushing attack to set up the occasional passing play. That formula could be reversed this season since Morris is clearly more comfortable throwing the ball than running it.

Navy has always tailored its offense to suit the strengths of its quarterback and Niumatalolo confirmed this week that might mean passing more than seasons past.

“We definitely have to utilize his throwing ability,” the 13th-year coach said Monday.

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Of course, it helps having perhaps the deepest, most talented wide receiver corps of the triple-option era. Cooper, a 6-foot-5, 221-pound junior, has an NFL body and is a big target going over the middle. Walker (6-2, 203), a sophomore out of St. Peter’s Prep in New Jersey, possesses superb speed.

Senior Ryan Mitchell (6-3, 200) is a returning starter who has seen limited playing time so far this season after suffering a broken hand toward the end of August training camp. Mathews (6-4, 214) and Marcell Gleaton (6-3, 224) are two other big, athletic targets.

“This crop of receivers is without a doubt the best we’ve had here in all my years,” Jasper said. “The weapons definitely are there. With these guys we have at receiver and slotback, we have a chance to really be a threat throwing the football.”

Walker showed his elite speed when returning the free kick following the safety recorded by the Navy defense. After retreating backwards to field the long kick, Walker spun around and proceeded to beat a wave of defenders to the outside for a 34-yard return.

“We haven’t had too many people who can outrun Tulane to the edge. We need playmakers like that,” Niumatalolo said of Walker. “Being able to have a guy that can blow the top off [the defense] on routes and get past people is definitely huge. [Walker] is a special, special football player who brings an extra element to the passing and punt return game. We don’t get too many guys like him at the Naval Academy.”

Navy’s wide receiving corps has always been nicknamed the “silverbacks.” Most observers have referred to them as “wide blockers” since that is the primary duty of the position in the triple-option. Perhaps this group will distinguish itself for catching passes and scoring touchdowns.

Morris included slotbacks such as Chance Warren and C.J. Williams when asked about the potential of the Navy passing attack.

“We have a ton of weapons on the offensive side of the ball and we plan on using them for sure. Chance Warren probably has the best hands on the team and C.J. Williams is electric with the ball in his hands,” Morris said. “I love to throw the football, so I won’t be complaining if we put the ball in the air 20 times a game.”

Fells delivers on trick play

Morris was on the opposite end of a big completion that helped spark the offense. Navy called a trick play in which Morris pitched the ball to slotback Myles Fells then kept on going, running a short route into the flat.

Fells, who is left-handed, suddenly stopped and threw a pass back to Morris, who was briefly wide-open. However, Fells put too much air under the ball and it seemingly took forever to reach Morris.

Tulane safety Chase Kuerschen sniffed out the play and was bearing down on Morris as he awaited the pass. Morris made the catch and carefully covered the ball just as he was drilled by the oncoming defender.

Jasper thought the catch and withstanding the big hit motivated Morris.

“I think what got him going was the [option] pass,” Jasper said. “Myles just turned and threw it and I thought Dalen was going to get decapitated. Dalen went up, caught it, balled up and came down with it. It was a great play.”

Morris was jokingly asked if he was concerned about losing the quarterback job to Fells, who completed his first career pass attempt.

“I’m not worried about little Mike Vick back there. He almost got my head taken off,” Morris said.

New-look offensive line steps up

Navy revamped the offensive line going into the Tulane game.

Senior Justin Self, who started at center in the season opener, bumped out to left tackle. Junior Pierce Banbury started at center in place of Self, while classmate Bryce Texeira started at left guard.

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Junior Luca Fratianne and senior Sean Rattay, who started at left tackle and left guard, respectively, in the opener, were benched.

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One reason for the shuffling was Tulane nose tackle Jeffery Johnson, who checks in at 6-foot-3 and 312 pounds. Self (6-2, 268) had trouble going against BYU nose tackle Khyiris Tonga (6-4, 320) in the opener.

“That was the move – to get a little more size at center,” Niumatalolo confirmed this week. “That definitely helped us having Banbury inside. He has great size and strength.”

Banbury made a mistake by losing control of the football when he was not supposed to snap it on a fourth-down play in which Navy was trying to draw Tulane offsides. However, the 6-foot-2, 302-pound lineman held his own against Johnson and helped clear some nice holes inside.

Niumatalolo and Jasper had high praise for the performance of the offensive line against Tulane.

“I thought the offensive line stepped up. They played hard and physical. We had a lot of knockdowns,” Jasper said. “Bryce Texeira had one play where he ran right through a linebacker. Peter Nestrowitz played a really good football game and sprung Jamale on that long run.”

Niumatalolo was pleased with the pass protection, not normally the strong suit of an offensive line that spends most of its time in practice and games run-blocking.

“We’re a running team so we can’t expect our offensive line to be great at pass protection,” he said. “They did a great job of that [against Tulane] and gave Dalen time to throw the ball.”

Morris was thankful for the effort of the offensive line, which was criticized severely for its poor performance in the opener.

“Oh, the slobs played one heck of a game,” he said. “Just like me, they got a lot of hate after the BYU game. They put the hard hat on and went back to work.”

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