This has been a busy month for Zach Abey, who is learning how to play wide receiver while still operating as a quarterback.
Navy is asking Abey to play a dual role during the 2018 season – blocking and catching passes as part of the wide receiver rotation while periodically taking snaps at quarterback in certain points during games.
That makes the Archbishop Spalding product a fairly unique specimen during the triple-option era at Navy. There have been several quarterbacks who switched to different positions during their careers, but not many who were asked to play two positions simultaneously.
Malcolm Perry pulled some double duty last season, starting at slotback for nine games and quarterback for three. However, two of those starts – against archrival Army and versus Virginia in the Military Bowl – came after Perry was moved permanently to quarterback. The 5-foot-9, 185-pounder never played both positions in the same game.
Of course, head coach Ken Niumatalolo’s decision to make Perry the starting quarterback is why Abey is now plying his trade at receiver. Abey made nine starts at quarterback last season and rushed for 1,413 yards, second-highest single-season total in Navy history. The 6-foot-2, 212-pounder scored 19 rushing touchdowns, second-most nationally among quarterbacks at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
Niumatalolo has made it clear that Abey is too talented to sit the bench so he and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper have crafted a role that takes advantage of his abilities.
“We have a plan for Zach to handle the short-yardage and goal-line plays. That is what Zach does and is really good at,” Jasper said. “Zach has a very important role with this football team because if we don’t convert on third and fourth down or on the goal line, we will be in trouble.”
Niumatalolo believes Abey will be better prepared to take over at quarterback in those specialty situations if he’s already been in the game as opposed to coming off the sideline cold.
Having having Abey as part of the receiver rotation means the Midshipmen can move him under center without alerting the opponent. When Navy breaks the huddle, there is no way to know whether Abey will line up as a wide receiver or the quarterback.
Of course, in order for the plan to work as designed Abey must earn a spot on the depth chart at wide receiver. Niumatalolo has no doubt that will happen.
“I think Zach is doing a really good job at wideout. I’ve been very pleased with him,” Niumatalolo said. “Zach is a phenomenal kid and a really good football player so I’m hoping he has a great year. From what we’ve seen so far, Zach has definitely earned a spot. He’s a tough kid who has practiced hard. He is going to play; he’s not going to be on the sideline.”
By all accounts, Abey’s transition to wide receiver during August training camp is going smoothly so far. In fact, wide receivers coach Mick Yokitis said the senior is ahead of schedule.
“Zach is doing really, really well, which we expected he would. He was a quarterback so he knows the offense, knows the plays,” Yokitis said. “What has impressed me so far is Zach’s ability to catch the football and do all the things we ask despite having never played receiver.”
Yokitis, who played wide receiver at Navy from 2003 through 2005, said there are really two critical qualities that go into being a wideout in the triple-option offense.
“I think the biggest things are toughness and being selfless, and Zach understands how to do both of those. With his background of playing rugby and being a physical quarterback, he hasn’t had any problems yet,” Yokitis said. “Right now, it’s just the little details we need to work on. Zach has the talent to do what we need him to do.”
Abey never played wide receiver at any level of football so there is certainly a learning curve. Having a thorough understanding of Navy’s unique offense has definitely helped as he was already aware of what the wide receivers do.
“I already know the offense really well so it’s kind of an easier transition than it might normally be. Now I’m just working on the minor details like the stalk blocking and getting crisper with running routes,” Abey said.
An almost daily routine for Abey is to review videotape of former Navy wide receivers such as Jamir Tillman and Tyler Carmona to pick up some of the nuances of the position. He tries to mimic their footwork and form when blocking, running routes and catching passes.
“I’ve been getting into the film room and studying some of the wide receivers from the past to pick up as many little things as I can,” the Pasadena resident said. “There are a lot of minor details that you wouldn’t see by just watching a football game – like stepping with your inside or outside foot and knowing how to gain leverage and stuff.”
Abey has already shown he can catch the football, hauling in a 5-yard touchdown toss from Perry against Temple last season. While Yokitis said the newcomer has consistently caught the ball in practice, Abey knows he must prove he can do so during games.
“It’s definitely game-time catching the ball,” he said of the biggest challenge. “I feel like I have pretty good hands, but it’s a lot different when you’re in traffic and have a defender on your back. During the live periods and when we do skelly or seven-on-seven, I try to really work on getting open and catching the football.”
Average fans don’t realize how critical the wide receivers are to Navy’s overall blocking scheme. Depending on the play, the wide receiver must hunt down a cornerback, linebacker or safety and execute the block in order for a particular play to be successful.
“Stalk blocking is a big deal because if our runners can get the edge they can make a big play. So receiver is a really important position in the offense,” Abey noted.
“Coach Yo likes that I’m a bigger body and believes I should be able to block effectively. I know I have the physical ability and desire to get the job done blocking-wise. There’s a lot of technique that goes into it and that’s what I’m working on,” he added.
While Abey spends the vast majority of practicing taking repetitions at wide receiver, he must also continue to train as a quarterback. Niumatalolo said the two-way standout stays sharp passing-wise by jumping into the quarterback rotation during seven-on-seven drills.
“Zach is still throwing the football,” Niumatalolo said. “When we start doing situational stuff, he’ll get in there to practice the running plays.”
Abey executed short-yardage and goal-line plays hundreds of times last season so that is somewhat second nature. However, it is still important to get repetitions in terms of the quarterback-center exchange along with knowing how to follow blockers and find holes.
“I’m definitely going to get practice reps to make sure I’m still sharp at running those types of plays,” he said.
Abey was asked if it will be challenging to flip-flop back-and-forth between wide-out and quarterback.
“I don’t think it’s all that difficult. One play I’m a receiver and have my gloves on, the next play I take my gloves off and I’m playing quarterback,” he said. “Having come from quarterback, I know the entire offense. I know what every position does. So it’s easy to transition out to receiver.