Despite some doomsday predictions joining the American Athletic Conference could backfire on Navy football, not much has changed as the Midshipmen enter their fourth year in the league.
Navy has posted winning seasons all three years, captured the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy in 2015, the AAC West outright in 2016 and won bowl games in 2016 and 2017.
And the Midshipmen have done it despite head coach Ken Niumatalolo forced into identifying an otherwise unknown quarterback to take over in a pinch.
That knack includes Keenan Reynolds, who took over for injured Trey Miller in 2012. Reynolds finished his career in Navy’s inaugural AAC season in 2015 as a four-year starter who was fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. The Midshipmen tied Houston for the AAC West title.
Tago Smith replaced Reynolds in 2016, but he was lost for the year with an injury in the season opener. Not only did senior Will Worth come off the bench to finish the game, Malcolm Perry was called out of the stands in the opener to get dressed. He was a backup in an emergency.
But instead of Perry succeeding Worth in 2017, Perry played slot back and Niumatalolo started junior Zach Abey. He opened the year with seven straight games rushing for 100-yards plus (one was a 235 yarder) before he was injured in the eighth game.
Garrett Lewis finished for Abey in the Temple loss, but Niumatalolo named Perry the starting quarterback the next week. Perry ran for 282 yards and four touchdowns to beat SMU.
In Perry’s four games to finish the season (he was injured against Notre Dame), he compiled 728 yards rushing out of his season total of 1,182. Only Abey topped him as the team leader with 1,413.
So now what?
Abey is back as a senior, Perry as a junior and Garrett Lewis is a senior that saw playing time in seven games, including the start at Notre Dame.
If Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivan Jasper, his sidekick throughout his 10 seasons as Navy’s head coach, can coax results out of their quarterbacks in an emergency, what can they do with two quarterbacks that have rushed for 1,000 yards and a third with experience?
Niumatalolo doesn’t play coy that he and Jasper are drawing up ideas to throw at opponents. The season opens Sept. 1 at Hawaii, which is a homecoming for both Niumatalolo and Jasper (Niumatalolo was a quarterback and later an assistant coach and Jasper a quarterback).
For 2018, Perry emerged as No. 1 quarterback after spring ball with Lewis No. 2 and Abey shifted to wide receiver to get his play-making ability on the field. But that doesn’t mean Abey won’t be involved at quarterback.
“Ivan and I have been talking,” Niumatalolo said at the end of spring drills. “We feel there is place for Malcolm, Zach and Garrett. We can see using all three of them. In the bowl game they all played and did well. Our thoughts now are not to limit what we can do with them.”
Navy beat Virginia in the Military Bowl 49-7 with Perry rushing for 114 yards and two touchdowns, Abey 88 and five TDs and Lewis six carriers for 36 yards. With the game a rout, Navy only threw the ball one time, Abey’s incompletion.
The doomsday predictions for Navy joining the AAC were based on Army’s disastrous results in seven Conference-USA seasons from 1998 to 2004. The high-water marks were a trio of 3-8 seasons with the low point 0-13 in 2003.
But citing Army ignores Air Force wasn’t hampered by joining the Western Athletic Conference in 1980 before the Mountain West was formed in 1998. In 38 seasons, the Falcons have consistently advanced to bowl games, gained Top 25 rankings and have won or shared three conference titles.
This is also a new era for academy football.
Vietnam and the escalation of NFL salaries once stunted recruiting, but recruiting has been on the uptick. The 9/11 attacks generated renewed patriotism and the economic crash of 2008 elevated the value of a degree with a guaranteed job sans college debt.
Army has caught up, too, beating Navy the last two years and winning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy in 2017 for the first time since 1996. It's a balanced time for Army, Navy and Air Force competition.
But don’t forget all three schools rely on the triple-option as a base offense and the importance of a quarterback in the scheme. Niumatalolo is opening the year with two 1,000-yard rushing QBs and a third with experience.
And who knows what else behind them should another pinch develop?