Update: Perry was drafted by the Dolphins in the seventh round.
Navy wrapped up a historic football season on New Year's Eve with a thrilling 20-17 win over Kansas St. in the Liberty Bowl.
The Midshipmen tied a school-record with 11 wins, finished in the Associated Press Top 20 for just the second time in 56 years and -- most importantly -- swept Army and Air Force to regain the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.
After going 3-10 in 2018, how did Navy have an FBS best eight-game turnaround in 2019? Quarterback Malcolm Perry had a lot to do with it.
Following a 35-7 loss to Air Force on Oct. 6, 2018, Coach Ken Niumatololo made a change at quarterback. Perry was moved from quarterback to slotback. After the season concluded, Niumatololo and his staff evaluated themselves.
Talking to NBC Sports Washington, Niumatololo recalled asking “did we give this kid a chance?” when thinking about Perry at quarterback. Ultimately, the Navy coaching staff went to Perry and told him he was going to lead the offense in 2019. There was no need to look over his shoulder anymore. Niumatololo told Perry they were going to work together to accentuate his talents and ride him all season.
The results validated their approach. Perry eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing his sophomore and junior seasons at the Naval Academy, but 2019 was different. Any moment free, he was working to get better.
“There was never a time after practice I wasn’t getting extra work with the guys,” Perry told NBC Sports Washington.
Additionally, Perry spent ample time in the film room to fully understand the offense.
“I felt really, really good when I saw [Malcolm] in the offseason,” Niumatalolo said.
The hard work paid off. Perry rushed for 2,017 yards, an FBS record for rushing yards in a season for a quarterback. Only Oklahoma St. running back Chuba Hubbard rushed for more yards than Perry in 2019. His 155.2 rushing yards per game also set an FBS record for quarterbacks. In the Army-Navy game, Perry rushed for 304 yards in the 31-7 rout, becoming just the fourth quarterback in FBS history to rush for over 300 yards in a game. With all of the accolades from a remarkable senior campaign, did the NFL creep into Perry’s mind?
“During the season it wasn’t even a focal point,” Perry said. “After the season, everything kind of hit me at once. Change of position, training, [East-West Shrine] all-star game, [NFL Scouting] Combine.”
Perry was invited to East-West Shrine Bowl, one of the highest profile college football postseason all-star games. The Navy quarterback practiced at wide receiver all week, but in the fourth quarter Perry scored on a 52-yard option keeper. Lining up at quarterback in the shotgun formation, he faked a pitch to his right, found a lane, and was gone. That type of vision and breakaway speed was why - in just his sophomore year - Niumatalolo thought Perry could play after his time at Navy.
“All of the coaches would look down the sideline and say ‘This kid is doing some special things,’” Niumatalolo said.
Like New England Patriots star slot receiver Julian Edelman or former Redskins and Steelers receiver Antwaan Randle El or former Navy star Keenan Reynolds, Perry will be expected to move from quarterback to wide receiver when entering the NFL. Fortunately for Perry, he does have experience playing another position. He appeared in 17 games at slot back his sophomore and junior years.
“Slot back is as close as it gets at Navy to the slot receiver position in the NFL,” Perry said. “It helped to get that experience in a game so it’s not foreign to me when it comes to training and playing at the next level.”
Niumatalolo has no worries about his former quarterback changing positions.
“I think the transition back to play slot receiver is going to be seamless for him,” Niumatalolo said.
The expectations for Perry vary from team to team but most anticipate slot receiver and a role in the return game to be a big part of his future.
“Punt return and kickoff return is a big thing for me to get comfortable with and be good at in order to get on the field at the next level,” Perry said.
Route running and catching punts have been Perry’s biggest focus entering the NFL Draft. Like every other prospect, he is dealing with the unique challenges of working out during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Perry is currently back at his parents’ house in Clarksville, Tenn. It isn’t easy.
“Trying to find ways to stay in shape,” Perry said. “Trying to be creative in how you do that.”
The difference between Perry and most other draft prospects is that he is still taking a full class load. From 8:30 a.m. to 2:20 p.m. every weekday, Perry, a Quantitative Economics major, has classes remotely.
“School is a little tougher at home than in the classroom,” Perry said.
Switching positions and dealing with a strenuous class schedule is not something many players can relate to entering the NFL Draft. Perry does, however, have someone to call that can. After four years as the starting quarterback of the Midshipmen and an FBS-record 88 career rushing touchdowns, Keenan Reynolds was selected by the Baltimore Ravens in the sixth round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
The two record-setting quarterbacks had a lot of interaction before Perry went to the NFL Combine. Reynolds sent Perry around 20 videos showing various techniques that have helped him. When NFL scouts came to Annapolis this fall to see Perry, as expected, Niumatalolo was frequently asked to compare Perry to Reynolds.
“The one thing that stands out is their competitive drive and detail in preparation,” Niumatalolo said. “You never see them slacking.”
And their differences?
“Keenan was a better thrower,” Niumatalolo said. “Malcolm was a better overall runner.”
On 295 rushing attempts in 2019, Perry averaged an astonishing 6.8 yards per carry. The start to Malcolm Perry’s football career at the Naval Academy was about as unusual as it gets. In the stands and in a Navy dress uniform, Perry watched starting quarterback Tago Smith go down with an ACL injury against Fordham in the season opener of the 2016 season.
“A couple plays later, one of the managers came sprinting up the stands like something crazy was going on,” Perry recalled. “Then he starts yelling my name.”
Perry was pulled from the stands, walked to the locker room, and put in uniform for the second half of the game. He entered in the fourth quarter and rushed for 30 yards on seven attempts.
From being pulled from the stands to start his collegiate career to setting NCAA records and leading the Mids to a top-20 finish in his senior season and now, a chance to become just the sixth Midshipmen in the last three decades to be selected in the NFL Draft, Perry’s time at the Naval Academy has been unique. While Perry says he has no expectations for the draft, where he could go late on Day 3 on Saturday, he is hoping to make a dream become reality. It’s close. Drafted or not, he will get a chance with some team.
“All throughout my life, just like every other kid that plays football, I dreamed of going to the NFL,” Perry said.
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