Spalding grad Abey prepared to take over as Navy backup QB

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at The Baltimore Sun.

Navy coaches are constantly telling the backups at each position that they are only one play away. That now applies to Zach Abey, who is suddenly the No. 2 quarterback.

Abey moved up the depth chart on Monday when it was learned Tago Smith had suffered a season-ending knee injury. Although an untested sophomore with no varsity experience, Abey thinks he is prepared to take control of Navy's triple-option offense if called upon.


"I'm ready to take the next step. I'm definitely confident. I'm comfortable with everything," Abey said after practice on Wednesday. "Coach Jasper has been doing a really good job of coaching me up in meetings and at practice."

Senior Will Worth will make his debut as Navy's starting quarterback on Saturday when Connecticut comes to Annapolis. Jasper, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, said Abey will be more involved with learning the game plan.


"It started yesterday in practice. I'm getting a lot more reps. In the meetings, I'm talking to Will a lot more and making sure we have the game plan down," Abey said. "It's crazy and just shows that you never know."

Abey was the Capital Gazette Communications Player of the Year as a senior at Archbishop Spalding. He spent the 2013-2014 academic year at the Naval Academy Prep School, playing both quarterback and fullback.

The Pasadena resident was strictly a quarterback as a freshman at the Naval Academy, working with the scout team in practice and playing in several junior varsity games. He consulted with head coach Ken Niumatalolo and Jasper prior to spring practice to say he was willing to switch to another position, but both men wanted to give him a longer look at quarterback.

Abey came out of spring camp fourth on the depth chart, slighly behind classmate Garrett Lewis. However, Lewis got hurt during August training camp while Abey showed significant improvement.

So it was that Abey was third on the depth chart going into last Saturday's season opener against Fordham. Unbeknownst to anyone in attendance at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, the Spalding product was suspended for the game due to a violation of team rules.

That issue led to an unusual situation in which freshman Malcolm Perry was pulled out of the stands to serve as the backup quarterback after Smith went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Smith wound up playing in the fourth quarter of the 52-16 blowout, meaning the suspension cost Abey a shot to see his first varsity action.

"I had a little slip up in the summer, but my head's all in it now. Everything I do is for the team," Abey said. "I have a different mindset. I'm one step away. Will's helmet could come off and I have to go in. So I need to stay mentally prepared."


Abey admitted he did not want to get the backup job as a result of an injury.

"It's unfortunate what happened to Tago. It's really hard to take because he's such a great kid and has been waiting for his opportunity," Abey said. "Same could be said for Will, he's been waiting as well. They're both among the most selfless guys on the team."

SYMBOLIC GESTURE: Navy announced co-captains Toneo Gulley and Daniel Gonzales would wear the No. 2 in honor of Smith, who underwent reconstructive surgery this week.

Gulley and Gonzales, who have been wearing No. 22 and No. 58, respectively, will make the change against Connecticut and it will be effective for the remainder of the season.

"That's a brother we've been with for four years and we thought this would be the best way to represent him throughout the year," Gonzales said. "It's tragic what happened to Tago and we wanted to do something to remember him."

Navy has seen its share of starters go down early. Jeff Deliz, the defensive captain in 2007, sustained a broken foot in the second game against Rutgers. Brian Hampton, the starting quarterback in 2006, endured a horrible knee injury in the sixth contest.


Gonzales was asked if he's concerned about setting a precedent as Navy has never had players wear the jersey numbers of injured players in the past. Smith willingly served as the backup to record-setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds from 2013 through 2015, even though he probably could have been starting at slotback.

"I think this is a special circumstance. You have someone who has been waiting three years for his time, and it wasn't because of personal choice or skill level that he's been waiting," Gonzales said.

Gulley and Gonzales brought the idea to Niumatalolo after first consulting with Navy equipment manager Greg Morgenthaler.

"We talked to Coach Niumat, the equipment manager – just to make sure we knew exactly what needed to happen in order for it to get done," Gonzales said. "It's worked out well and we think it's a great way to represent Tago."

GETTING HIS KICKS: Bennett Moehring made his varsity debut as Navy placekicker on Saturday and performed well, going 7-for-7 on extra points and also booting a 23-yard field goal.

"I thought Bennett kicked very well," Niumatalolo said.


There was a strong wind swirling inside Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Saturday and it made an impact. Moehring boomed a pair of kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks when the wind was at his back. He had a kickoff go out of bounds while working against the wind.

"The wind was a tough deal. Both kickers struggled with the wind," Niumatalolo said. "Most importantly, Bennett did a good job on field goal and PAT."

Moehring was a highly touted recruit at Bentonville High in the Arkansas town of the same name. Special teams guru Chris Sailer had the 5-foot-9, 180-pounder ranked as the No. 1 kicker in the Class of 2015. The four-time All-State soccer selection booted a 49-yard field goal as a senior.

"Everything Bennett's done in camp reinforces all of his credentials coming out of high school. He's worked really hard and we're excited about him," Niumatalolo said the week prior to the opener.

Moehring became the top placekicker after senior D.J. Grant-Johnson suffered a leg injury midway through preseason camp. It is unclear when Grant-Johnson will be cleared to resume kicking.

INJURY REPORT: Linebacker Ryan Harris, a special teams standout, suffered a concussion while delivering a hard hit on the opening kickoff on Saturday. Harris appeared woozy as he sat on the field afterward and was quickly taken to the locker room for evaluation.


Niumatalolo would not speculate about when Harris would return. "We just go through the concussion protocol. I don't ever get involved. Whenever they tell me "(Harris) is ready to go," he said.

Starting cornerback Elijah Merchant left the opener with cramps, but has recovered nicely and was practicing this week. Merchant is listed even with sophomore Jarid Ryan (Severn School) atop the depth chart at right corner this week.

Outside linebacker Kevin McCoy, who suffered a hamstring injury during training camp and sat out the opener as a result, resumed full-contact practice this week and will be available to play against Connecticut.

FAMILY TIES: Tom Forrestal was the starting quarterback and offensive captain of the 1957 Navy football team that posted a 9-1-1 record and defeated Rice, 20-7, in the Cotton Bowl. John "Jack" Shirreffs Jr. was an outstanding end on that noteworthy team.

Their grandsons will be on opposite sides on Saturday. Patrick Forrestal is the starting nose guard for Navy while Bryant Shirreffs is the starting quarterback for Connecticut.

John Shirreffs III played quarterback at Virginia and both his sons became quite accomplished at the position. Evan Shirreffs, who succeeded his older brother as the starting signal-caller at Jefferson High in Georgia, is a redshirt freshman at Miami.


Meanwhile, Severna Park High graduate Chris Lee is a backup tight end for UConn. The 6-foot-7, 273-pound sophomore serves in primary a blocking role for the Huskies.