Unfortunate injury leads to dream come true for Navy's Zach Abey

Zach Abey always dreamed of playing college football. More specifically, the Maryland native always dreamed of running Navy’s triple-option attack against Army.

The sophomore’s dream will become a reality Saturday.

With quarterback Will Worth (broken foot) getting hurt in last week’s American Athletic Conference title-game loss to Temple, Abey will make his first start when Navy (9-3) faces Army (6-5) at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Abey will be playing 30 minutes from his hometown of Pasadena with dozens of family members and friends in the stands.

“It’s really amazing,” Abey said. “Growing up around Annapolis, I always wanted to run out of the tunnel, onto the field and play in the Army-Navy game. It’s truly a dream come true.”

Abey began the season third on the depth chart behind seniors Tago Smith and Worth after the graduation of four-year starter Keenan Reynolds. The only Navy quarterback to go 4-0 against Army, Reynolds finished as the all-time FBS leader in total touchdowns (88), rushing yards by a quarterback (4,559) and points scored (530).

Worth became the starter when Smith suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the opener against Fordham. On the season Worth rushed for 1,198 yards and 25 TDs and passed for 1,397 yards and another eight scores before he got hurt in the second quarter of last week’s 34-10 loss to Temple. Worth was voted ASN’s FBS Player of the Year.

“Obviously, it’s very unfortunate for both Will and Tago to get hurt,” Abey said. “I’d never wish for that to happen to either of them, but our motto here is ‘Next Man Up.’ Will knew he was going to be a backup quarterback behind Tago, but when Tago went down he stepped in and played very well. As the second-string quarterback, you have to prepared to go in at any moment.”

Navy played in so many close games this season that the 6-2, 218-pound Abey — a strong, physical runner like Worth — has had limited opportunities to gain experience. Abey would have played in the season-opening win over Fordham but was suspended for violating team rules, so those late reps instead went to freshman Malcolm Perry after he was pulled from the stands to dress out when Smith got hurt.

Abey had to wait until the 10th game of the season to make his collegiate debut at East Carolina on Nov. 19, and he directed a short touchdown drive to cap a 66-31 win. The following week he entered the SMU game late in the third quarter and rushed for a team-high 111 yards and a score in a 75-31 blowout in Dallas.

The most extensive playing time of Abey’s young career came after Worth got hurt against Temple. Abey’s 47-yard scramble was Navy’s longest play from scrimmage in the game, and he later scored on a 1-yard run. Abey finished with 70 yards and a score on 14 carries and completed 7 of 13 passes for 104 yards with two interceptions in the loss.

“Any in-game experience you can get helps a lot,” Abey said. “I made some mistakes, but now I have a chance to learn from them.”

Abey wanted to play football at Navy but committed to Buffalo the summer before his senior season at nearby Archbishop Spaulding High School as the Bulls were the first FBS school to offer him. That season he rushed for 1,663 yards and 19 TDs and passed for another 10 scores to earn all-state honors.

By January, Abey had his offer from Navy and flipped his commitment to the Midshipmen. It was an opportunity to play college football and pursue a life of service like his older brother, who is in the Coast Guard.

Abey spent the 2014-15 academic year at the Naval Academy Prep School, where he played football. Last year at the Naval Academy he worked with the scout team in practice and played on the junior varsity team before getting a chance to play in a real game this season.

“Playing football at Navy was something I always wanted to do, and it’s been awesome,” Abey said. “My brother was in the military, so part of me wanted to follow in his footsteps. I also had the dream of playing college football. Having the Naval Academy in my home state, it seemed like the right fit.”

Navy still has a Dec. 23 matchup against Louisiana Tech (8-5) in the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas. But Abey has all of his attention right now on the 117th Army-Navy game. The Midshipmen have won 14 consecutive games against Army, the nation’s longest active winning streak in a rivalry game.

“It’s definitely a huge game,” Abey said. “It’s pretty cool to know we’re both fighting for the name on our chest and not the name on our back. On the field, we’re the biggest enemies, but once we graduate we’ll be on the same field fighting together for the United States.”

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo believes in his new starting quarterback.

“He’s been running the second-team offense all season,” Niumatalolo said. “He has gotten a lot of reps. He’ll be ready.”

Photos courtesy Ray Carlin/USA TODAY Sports via Navy Athletics

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