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Quarterback of the Future

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James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

Ken Niumatalolo didn’t reveal who his starting quarterback would be leading up to the Army game, but he might as well have. The fact that he was keeping his starter a secret was probably enough to tip off Army’s coaches that a change was coming. When Navy ran out onto the field and lined up in the shotgun with Malcolm Perry as their signal-caller, it was a different look for the Mids, but not necessarily a surprise.

According to Niumatalolo, he decided to start Perry at quarterback immediately after the Houston game.

“Two weeks ago, we knew he [Perry] was going to start,” said Niumatalolo. “We had known for a while that he was going to start.”

"Two weeks ago, I was told I was going to be the starting quarterback against Army," Perry said after the game."It was obvious that I was going to have the ball in my hands a lot. That is what we came out here and did."

Indeed it was, as Perry carried the ball 30 times for 250 yards, his second 250-yard rushing performance of the season. The first one came in Perry's only other start at quarterback when he ran for 282 yards and four touchdowns against SMU.

When asked if Perry would play that position going forward, Niumatalolo said that it was likely.

"Probably. We'll see," he said. "It's kind of fresh after the game. We'll go back and re-evaluate everything and look at our season."

The move would make sense. Perry started his Navy career as a quarterback, and even in the few brief appearances he made during his plebe year, his talent was unmistakable. He played in three games and averaged 8.1 yards per carry, including a 30-yard touchdown run in the Armed Forces Bowl. He might have stayed at quarterback if it wasn't for the injury to Tago Smith.

Smith was another gifted runner and Navy's starting quarterback as they opened the 2016 season. His time directing Ivin Jasper's triple-option offense ended with heartbreak almost as soon as it began. After running for 97 yards in less than two quarters of work in the Midshipmen's season opener against Fordham, Smith suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for the remainder of his senior season.

That injury greatly affected the Navy coaching staff. Smith had waited patiently for three years behind Keenan Reynolds for his chance to play. He could have contributed at a different position, but the coaches saw the potential he had at quarterback. After the injury, Niumatalolo expressed his regret; Smith had done everything right and stayed at quarterback for the good of the team, but never got the chance to play that he deserved. Niumatalolo didn't want to risk the same thing happening to Malcolm Perry, so he moved the rising sophomore to slotback.

There have been slotbacks-- good ones-- that didn't reach 532 rushing yards in an entire season. The nature of that position is such that a player can make the most of the chances he gets, but he doesn't always get very many. Perry reached that total in only two games as a quarterback, nearly matching his season total as a slotback (536). He was the most talented player on the field on Saturday, and for Navy, it doesn't make sense for their best ballcarrier to play a position where he'd have fewer opportunities to touch the ball. The quarterback, on the other hand, handles the ball on every play, and Perry has shown what he can do when given enough opportunities.

If he is indeed the starting quarterback from now on, Perry feels that he's ready.

"I feel like if the coaches make that call, the guys are behind me," he said. "I feel like I am able to take that position and get this team going in the right direction."

It’s the right attitude to have, but in reality, he still has a long way to go. The decision to start Perry against Army did not come without risk. He didn’t practice as a quarterback for most of this season, and as the #3 quarterback last year, saw very limited repetitions then, too. He doesn’t know the offense yet. Starting Perry meant making a tradeoff between the more electric runner and the guy with a better understanding of the offense, Zach Abey.

It was the right decision.

It’s hard not to feel for Abey right now. All he’s done this season is run for 1325 yards and 14 touchdowns, answering every criticism that was directed at him after he struggled against Army last year. He made the Armed Forces Bowl’s 15th Anniversary Team for his performance in last year’s game. He had two 200-yard rushing performances of his own. He led the Mids to a 5-0 record and a top-25 ranking this year. Far from being a deer in the headlights, he engineered an incredible comeback against Air Force, leading the Mids to victory with his arm.

The problem with Abey is simply one of style. Abey is very similar to Will Worth. Both have been described as glorified fullbacks, more strong than quick, adept at running between the tackles. Navy became more of a power running team with both of them under center. Last season, that was fine. Most of the defenses that Navy faced in 2016 tried to imitate what Houston did a year earlier, and Worth was very effective running midline options and off-tackle plays that took advantage of aggressive outside pursuit.

The one game where Worth struggled, though, was against Air Force. Air Force didn’t take Houston’s approach. Instead, they did what they always did. They packed the box, had linebackers shooting gaps at the snap, and brought their safeties up to almost the second level. Navy was held to 57 rushing yards and lost by two touchdowns.

Guess what defense all of Navy’s opponents tried to imitate this year?

When a defense digs in like that, power running is not going to be the most efficient way to move the ball. You need to get those defenders moving laterally. In the context of Navy’s offense, that is usually done with the outside zone. The problem is that the outside zone is run best by quicker quarterbacks who can recognize an opening and make a cut in a split second. That wasn’t Worth’s game, and it isn’t Abey’s. It is, however, Malcolm Perry’s. SMU also tried to do the same thing as Air Force, and we all saw the result.

That’s why Niumatalolo and Jasper went to the shotgun against Air Force this year. They knew that they had to find some way to spread the defense out if they were going to run the ball with Abey at quarterback. Unfortunately, while they could catch Air Force off guard, everyone else would be prepared once they saw the film.

One of the common criticisms that you might have heard (or maybe even said) of Navy’s offense this year is that it was too reliant on the quarterback. The stats certainly seem to support that; the quarterback has had 25 or more carries in 10 of Navy’s 12 games in 2017. In the rare instances where defenses haven’t packed the box like Air Force, though— Cincinnati, Louisiana Tech— Abey ran the offense the way you’d expect a Navy quarterback to run the offense, and the ball was distributed accordingly. The offense wasn’t one-dimensional by design; it’s just what defenses dictated this year.

Abey could have been the right man, but he came one year too late.

And that brings us back to Perry. With the success that defenses had in stopping Navy’s offense in the second half of the year, it is reasonable to assume that those teams will employ the same tactics in 2018. This time, though, they will be met by a quarterback with a skill set that is better suited to counter them. Once that starts to get onto film, opposing coaches will start looking for other ways to attack Navy, and that will open up the offense once again.

In the meantime, Perry has a lot of work to do. Fortunately, he has a full offseason, spring practice, and fall camp to prepare under the tutelage of the finest option quarterback coach in the country. He’ll have every opportunity to get ready. And if he does, watch out.