ANNAPOLIS — The richest college football programs may spend millions to upgrade their training facilities, but they’re hard-pressed to replicate the distinct atmosphere of the riverside practice fields on the campus of the Naval Academy.
It’s here the Navy football team prepares for the 2018 season. Their surroundings, their triple-option offense and their players’ service commitments set the Midshipmen apart from your average Division I program, but this will be a different season even by their standards.
Two key offensive cogs, Malcolm Perry and Zach Abey, are transitioning into new roles, and their success may determine how far Navy goes. Meanwhile, the team will go far in a quite literal sense — they’ll play games in five time zones and rack up the most travel miles of any FBS team in the lower 48 states.
That’s largely due to their opening week, nonconference game at Hawaii on Saturday. Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo hails from the state and played quarterback for the Rainbow Warriors, and his son Va’a joined Hawaii as an offensive intern this year.
But Navy’s staff originally asked for a bye week after the Hawaii trip. Instead, the American Athletic Conference scheduled them to play their home opener Sept. 8 against Memphis — their biggest competition in the West Division. Navy will be the first Eastern time zone team since 2004 to play a game one week after traveling to Hawaii.
Players have said they are embracing the challenge.
“The schedule’s been out a long time. At the school we go to, we don’t necessarily get handed the best cards as far as time all the time,” defensive captain Sean Williams said. “Everybody’s focused, they’re trying to be detailed in their preparation, taking care of their bodies and getting rest. We’re just trying to create good habits before we get on this road.”
The Midshipmen will rack up 26,496 miles for eight away and neutral-site games. Besides the Hawaii trip, they visit Air Force in Colorado Springs, Colorado, play Notre Dame on a neutral field in San Diego and add conference games in Dallas, Cincinnati, New Orleans and Orlando, Florida.
“Coach is focusing on letting our legs rest, making sure we’re in the best shape possible to go out and play a game on Saturday,” Perry said. “Other than that it’s a football game, so the other team doesn’t care how far we traveled or anything like that.”
If that answer is an indication, Perry has the leadership part of being the new quarterback figured out. Perry played some quarterback in high school due to a lack of other options on his team, but he said he’d always envisioned himself as a runner. Cut to last season, and the slotback ran for 282 yards and four touchdowns in his first collegiate start at quarterback. He added 250 yards on the ground in against Army.
On most teams, a running back taking over at quarterback is unthinkable. At Navy, a team that attempted less than eight passes per game last year while running down opponents’ throats, it can work.
Navy coaches and players had a variety of ideas about who might have a breakout year, from second-string fullback Nelson Smith to some sophomore A-backs. But former starting quarterback Abey pointed to Perry, a seemingly already established athlete.
“People see him as one-dimensional, but I think he’s gonna do a lot of big things this year with the offense,” Abey said. “He’s molding more into a triple-option quarterback than just running primarily.”
With Perry’s move, Abey has adopted a utility role that’s also rare to find in football. The Midshipmen still want Abey to take snaps in short-yardage situations because he’s built bigger than Perry; the rest of the time, he’ll line up outside as a receiver. Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper, entering his 19th season on Navy’s staff, says the program has never had a player in a hybrid position like that.
Wide receivers coach Mike Yokitis asked Abey if he would make the switch, and Abey said he would love to. Though he caught a 5-yard touchdown on a trick play last year, he won’t be asked to do a lot of actual receiving in the triple-option offense.
“Coach Yo and some of the older guys did a good job helping me and molding me into what being a receiver is all about, especially here at Navy,” Abey said. “It’s a lot different of a role than any normal receiver because you’re focused a lot more on blocking.”
“But it shows what kind of person he is,” the coach said. “He’s a phenomenal team player and the transition is going well.”
For many years in the Niumatalolo era, the Midshipmen have seemed on the verge of reaching new heights for the program. They’ve entered the Associated Press Top 25 for at least a week in each of the last three seasons. The American is the most competitive conference outside the Power Five and the best-positioned to send a team to a New Year’s Six bowl game.
Could this be the year Navy pulls off its first conference title and is rewarded in January, like with a Fiesta Bowl or Peach Bowl berth?
“I don’t know if I can put my finger on it, but there’s something I feel really good about this team,” Niumatalolo said. “Just the way we’ve worked in offseason, our humility, our drive, the talent on our team, the way things have looked since January on. I don’t know what this is going to translate into, but I’ve been doing this for a while and I feel good about this team.”
Jasper also has a good vibe, particularly about the talent and speed at the big four positions of his offense: Perry, Smith and starting slotbacks Keoni-Kordell Makekau and Tre Walker.
“We’ll be faster than what we’ve been at those four positions, as far as I can remember,” Jasper said. “It’s going to come down to just playing good football. All the tools are there on paper, and they have a chance to be a very, very special group.”
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