TAMPA – Will Worth was excited when he learned that Navy would be playing at South Florida during his senior season.
That's because Worth grew up in the greater Tampa area and the American Athletic Conference contest would be a nice homecoming toward the end of his collegiate career.
However, Worth's anticipation was tempered by the knowledge he would probably play a limited role on the day the Midshipmen met the Bulls at Raymond James Stadium. Most likely, the Newsome High product would be relegated to serving as holder on placekicks.
Circumstances have changed dramatically for Worth, who will return to his hometown as the starting quarterback and surprising star of Navy's triple-option offense. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound senior is coming off a performance that earned American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Week honors.
When Worth takes the field on Friday night against South Florida, he'll be in a position he never dreamed of going into this season.
"When we joined the conference it was neat to see USF on the schedule," Worth said. "I was definitely looking forward to playing close to home. I definitely didn't think I'd be starting when this game came around. I'm just glad it's worked out this way."
Worth has stated repeatedly that he's not happy about the reason for his ascension, which was the season-ending injury suffered by initial starter Tago Smith. However, Worth was ready when pressed into duty and has shown significant improvement since taking over for Smith late in the first half of the Fordham game.
After directing game-winning drives against Connecticut and Tulane, Worth took a step backward at Air Force — struggling with his reads and decision-making during a disappointing defeat. The Midshipmen managed a mere 57 rushing yards and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper conceded the quarterback didn't play well.
Worth bounced back in a big way against Houston, directing an attack that rolled up 306 rushing yards while doing much of the damage himself. He carried 32 times for 115 yards and a touchdown and kept the Cougars honest by completing 3 of 5 passes for 76 yards and two scores.
That outing was a real confidence-builder and Worth was even better versus Memphis, establishing career-highs by rushing for 201 yards and three touchdowns. He was again accurate on the rare occasions the Mids went to the air, completing 3 of 4 throws for 85 yards and two TDs.
"I've always said that we can win with Will. I've never doubted him one bit," Jasper said afterward.
That being said, even Jasper and head coach Ken Niumatalolo admit they did not foresee Worth evolving from game manager to game-breaker. Asked during this week's American Athletic Conference teleconference whether he was surprised by Worth's production, Niumatalolo responded "yes" not once, but twice.
"I thought Will could run our offense, but he's playing a lot better than I thought he would play," Niumatalolo said.
However, Niumatalolo noted that he was not surprised by the leadership Worth has displayed. Everyone involved with the Navy program knew the career-long backup quarterback was determined and hard-nosed.
"The way Will is playing right now is inspiring our whole team. Because of his toughness, his passion, his will to win … it motivates the other players," Niumatalolo said. "When you see your quarterback playing with great physicality and running over linebackers, it's inspiring."
That Worth would step up when called upon is no surprise to those who watched him star as a quarterback, linebacker and punter for Newsome High, which is located 25 miles east of Tampa in the suburb of Valrico. He was named the Hillsborough County Player of the Year and first team All-State after leading Newsome to the Class 7A region championship.
A four-year starter on both sides of the ball, Worth accounted for more than 5,400 total yards of offense and 57 touchdowns along with nearly 300 tackles. Despite those gaudy statistics, he was lightly recruited and continued a family legacy by choosing the Naval Academy.
A grandfather graduated from the Naval Academy in 1953 while older brother Joe Worth was commissioned last May after playing inside linebacker for the football team and serving as Brigade Commander. Both parents, William and Susan Worth, served in the U.S. Navy after going through Officer Candidate School Reserve Officer Training Corps, respectively.
Jasper said Worth was basically a walk-on and initially wondered whether he would ever make the travel squad. Will Worth proved a virtual clone of his older brother in terms of being the consummate midshipman and worked his tail off on the football practice field.
Those traits earned the trust of the coaching staff and Worth was given the role of holder for placekicks as a sophomore. He handled those duties while serving as third string quarterback behind Keenan Reynolds and Smith for two seasons.
"Will is pretty much a self-made football player," Jasper said. "I wasn't sure he would ever play, but Will stuck it out and kept plugging away."
Jasper remembers Worth staying after practice to fine-tune his footwork and enlisting teammates to help him practice mesh handoffs and pitchouts. The veteran quarterbacks coach was not surprised to learn that Tim Tebow was Worth's favorite football player.
"Will carries himself a lot like Tebow and plays a little like him as well," Jasper said.
Tebow was a Heisman Trophy winner and star quarterback at Florida when Worth was in high school. He was a running quarterback just like Tebow, carrying 25-30 games out of pistol formation while operating a variation of the Wing-T offense.
"I just liked the way Tebow played, the physical mentality and the obvious passion," Worth said. "He is just so genuine. That was the type of person and leader I wanted to be."
Worth has played at Raymond James Stadium twice before — as a youngster with a Pinecrest Pilots youth football squad that won the Tampa-area "Super Bowl" and later in the Hillsborough County Senior All-Star game.
"It's always cool to play in that stadium," Worth said of the home facility of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "I'm real excited about doing it again, but I'm also trying to treat it like any other game."
William and Susan Worth have personally distributed about 15 tickets to immediate family and close friends while approximately 100 other supporters will be in attendance. They include faculty members, students and parents from Randall Middle School where Susan works and co-workers of William's from Special Operations MacDill.
"We are just ecstatic about Navy playing here and Will coming home. The whole community is extremely excited," Susan Worth said.
The Worths plan to attend every Navy football game this season and would have done so even if their son had not been elevated to starting quarterback. In fact, watching Will direct the triple-option has been nerve-wracking for the parents.
"Will handles it a lot better than I do. I get extremely nervous," Susan Worth said. "I'm amazed at how much confidence and poise Will has shown. He embraces the pressure and just goes out and has fun."
Worth, who was the subject of a feature article in the hometown Tampa Bay Times this week, said he is trying to squeeze four seasons worth of college football into one. On Friday night on a familiar field, he will try to get Navy bowl eligible by beating the school that is located not far from his house.
NO. 22 NAVY @ SOUTH FLORIDA
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