Navy’s musical chairs offense is starting to sort itself out and head coach Ken Niumatalolo is hopeful that will lead to improved consistency.
Niumatalolo said after practice on Tuesday that Malcolm Perry is going to remain at slotback for the foreseeable future and that Zach Abey is going to resume his hybrid role as a starting wide receiver and short-yardage/goal-line quarterback.
Garret Lewis is expected to make his third straight at quarterback on Saturday night against Notre Dame. Additionally, starting slotback CJ Williams is expected to play after missing the last two games with an upper body injury.
“CJ is back so we feel good about that,” Niumatalolo said.
Perry opened the season as the starting quarterback and through five games he was the focal point of the offense. The 5-foot-9, 185-pound speedster switched to slot for Game 6 against Temple, due largely to the fact Navy was short-handed at the position with Williams and top backup Keoni-Kordell Makekau out with injuries.
Perry started at slotback for the second straight game versus Houston and rushed for 97 yards on 10 carries before suffering a leg injury on the first play of the third quarter. Makekau returned to action last Saturday and Williams should be back this Saturday, but Perry will continue to play slot.
“It depends on how things go, but for right now he is going to stay there,” said Niumatalolo, who was encouraged by Perry’s progress health-wise. “From what I saw today, he’ll probably be able to go.”
Perry said after practice on Tuesday that his transition to slotback is going well. The Tennessee native started 10 games at slot last season so it was just a matter of re-acclimating.
“I’m knocking a little of the rust off and getting back used to moving around side-to-side. It’s been fun,” he said.
Perry has been adjusting to coming into tail motion and catching a pitch as opposed to taking the snap and running the ball himself.
“It is a lot different as far as how you’re running the ball. You’re not in-between the tackles as much, not running into linebackers as much,” Perry said. “At slot it’s more about hitting the edge, getting outside and using your speed a little more and moving laterally a lot more.”
Abey did not play a single snap at wide receiver last Saturday, which was a bit surprising considering he had started five of six games there this season. That may have been due to the fact Abey spent most of the previous week practicing at quarterback as the coaching staff was considering whether to start him or Lewis.
Abey did enter the Houston contest twice at quarterback. The Pasadena resident had a fourth-and-short play nullified by a penalty and Navy wound up punting. The 6-foot-2, 212-pound senior scored a touchdown from 1-yard out on a goal-line situation.
Lewis appears to have solidified his status as the starter because Abey was back practicing at wide receiver on Tuesday. The Archbishop Spalding product did take some repetitions at quarterback in order to stay sharp for his specialty role.
“Zach is going to play this week and it might be a combination like what he’s done in the past – play wide-out and quarterback,” Niumatalolo said. “I think he’s getting back closer to 100 percent. He feels really good this week and practiced really well today.”
Speaking to the media moments later, Abey confirmed the knee injury he sustained against SMU is healing thanks to his diligence in the training room.
“I’ve been running around in practice and it feels pretty good. I’m not having any issues so far so that’s good,” said Abey, who is no longer wearing a bulky knee brace.
Abey was asked about having to flip-flop between wide receiver and quarterback. Based off what happened last week, there were some who assumed he would be returning full-time to quarterback.
“It’s not any different than what we have been doing. I talk with Coach (Ivin) Jasper to make sure I’m up on whatever quarterback stuff I need to know for the game and I’m playing receiver in practice,” Abey said. “Everything we do at quarterback is the same as last season so just getting refreshed is like riding a bike.”
With Abey and Perry practicing at wide receiver and slotback it means Dalen Morris is getting the backup repetitions at quarterback. The 6-foot-1, 204-pound sophomore was running the second team huddle on Tuesday.
“Ivin is giving Dalen more reps,” said Niumatalolo, who was non-committal when asked who would play quarterback against Notre Dame if Lewis had to leave the game.
With Lewis set to make his third straight start at quarterback and Perry expected to do the same at slotback, Niumatalolo is hopeful the Midshipmen can find some continuity. Factor in the return of Williams, who was the team’s top slotback through five games, and perhaps that goal will be realized.
“Offensively, we’ve been trying to figure out our identity. What suits Malcolm, what suits Garret, what suits Zach?’’ Niumatalolo said. “It’s taken some time to figure out what’s best for this team.”
Navy’s offense performed well in the first half then fizzled in the second half against both Temple and Houston. That inconsistency has confounded the coaching staff with Niumatalolo huddling with offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper and running game coordinator Ashley Ingram to figure out why.
“We have to find a way to finish. That’s on me. I’ve got to do a better job with that,” Niumatalolo said.
This week, the brain trust has decided to make some alterations to Navy’s practice plan to address the second half struggles.
“We’re trying to change up our practice a little bit – just taking a look at the second half of our practice. How intense is it? Are some of the things we’re emphasizing good or bad?” Niumatalolo said. “We’ll try to turn up the intensity in the second half and see if that helps. You have to look at everything. Why are we not functioning in the second half of games?”
Niumatalolo shook his head when asked if he thought conditioning was a factor in the offense’s second half collapses. The 11th-year head coach said the staff did not see signs that players were tiring.
“Against Houston we started having some mental mistakes as far as assignments, which was baffling because they stayed in the same front. Somehow we’re losing our focus,” he said.
Perry, for one, thinks it’s more mental than physical and believes the Midshipmen simply need to start the second half with the same intensity they show to start the game.