Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo didn’t care much for his team’s 3-9 season last year, and cared even less for the way he handled his quarterbacks, often playing as many as three in the same game.
So one of his biggest offseason decisions was to keep dynamic senior Malcolm Perry at quarterback rather than have him shuttle between taking snaps and playing slotback in the Midshipmen’s triple-option offense.
The call was a rousing success. Perry has been one of the nation’s top rushers this season with 1,500 yards and 19 touchdowns for the Mids (9-2), who will try Saturday to snap a three-game losing streak to Army (5-7) at Lincoln Financial Field when the rivals meet for the 120th time.
“People look to the quarterback for leadership,” Niumatalolo said, “and if you’re wishy-washy as we were last year as a staff on who the quarterback is, it’s hard to be the leader. I thought we did him a disservice last year, and the other quarterbacks I thought we did a disservice.
“So this year we talked about it and said it’s his team, give him the keys to everything to allow him to take over the team and to show him we have confidence in him. I think that confidence has just permeated through the team because he’s taken the ball and run with it, and he’s done awesome.”
Perry (5-foot-9, 185 pounds) showed his rushing prowess from the quarterback position in 2017 against Army, running for 250 yards – second-most in the history of the rivalry – and a 68-yard touchdown in a 14-13 loss at the snowy Linc. He started three games at QB in 2017 and five last season before getting the job full time.
Perry, of Clarksville, Tenn., admitted that switching between two positions could be “pretty stressful,” but that he’s “grateful to be on the field at all times.
“In the beginning, they did give me the option to play quarterback or play running back,” he said at last week’s Army-Navy luncheon. “Early on I chose running back and they kind of kept giving me the option to play quarterback, then eventually it was like, ‘We’re going to ask you to come play quarterback,’ and I was like, ‘OK, sure.’
“But I don’t think until after last season that I really embraced and took on the role and accepted what they were asking me to be. I think . . . the biggest difference in my performance, personally, is just accepting the role and trying to thrive in it rather than survive.”
With Saturday’s game and a Dec. 31 date against Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl remaining, Perry is zeroing in on academy records and milestones. He needs 88 yards to break Napoleon McCallum’s single-season mark of 1,588 rushing yards set in 1983, and 69 to set a record for total offense in one season, topping Will Worth’s 2,595 yards in 2016.
His next 100-yard rushing game will be the 20th of his career, second all-time at Navy behind Keenan Reynolds. He already has joined Reynolds as the second Mid to rush for 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. He also is 158 yards away from 4,000 in his career.
Perry’s career at the academy began in an interesting manner. As a plebe (freshman) in 2016, he did not dress for the varsity’s season opener against Fordham, so he tailgated with teammates and friends and sat in the stands. However, things changed when starting quarterback Tago Smith was injured in the second quarter.
“One of the managers sprints up the stairs and finds me,” Perry recalled. “He takes me downstairs and I’m kind of confused as to what’s going on. They got my pads and told me I was going to suit up for the rest of the game. I’m like, ‘That’s pretty cool.’ In the third quarter, they threw me into the game and I got to experience my first college football game.”
For all the numbers Perry has amassed throughout his career, the only number he cares about Saturday is one that’s one point higher than Army’s at the end of the game.
“I’m expecting to see a group of guys go out there and give it all they’ve got,” he said. “That’s pretty much my expectations, nothing much beyond that, just a team effort and a group of guys that leave it all out there on the field.”