TAMPA — In a profession laced with sordidness and slick talkers, he has remained smudge-free. Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, whose name carries even more respect than syllables, may evade a question now and again, but he won’t lie.
So when he’s asked if quarterback Will Worth — the seldom-used backup thrust into a starting role out of necessity — has surprised him, the answer is yes. And yes.
“I hoped that he would play well,” Niumatalolo said days before the Midshipmen visit USF. “But he’s playing a lot better than I thought, and I’m really, really excited for him.”
That makes one surprised observer. Finding No. 2 may take some doing, especially among those who saw Worth during his days as Newsome High quarterback, middle linebacker, punter, captain, cornerstone and conscience.
“Even when he was in youth football, we used to say he had ‘it,’ ” said Newsome assistant Rob Vetzel, who began coaching Worth when the Midshipmen senior was a 12-year-old force of prepubescence with the Pinecrest Pilots. “He just made everybody around him better. He put the team on his shoulders and loved it.”
Former Newsome teammate Donovan Geter — a walk-on USF receiver — is only surprised in the sense he presumed Worth would play linebacker in college. But the agility? The ruggedness? The ability to complete a spiral over the top to an unsuspecting secondary? Nah, Geter has seen it all before.
“I remember there was a time where we ran like, a wedge, and the line didn’t move,” Geter recalled. “The offensive and defensive lines just kind of smacked, they were at a stalemate. And Will Worth ran up the middle, and then the line definitely started moving. I was like, ‘He really just moved the line by himself.’ ”
Bottom line, the limited body of work (five career starts, four wins, 1,187 total yards, 15 touchdowns) that has astounded Navy coaches and constituents is a virtual replicate of the four-year resume Worth — the youngest of three kids born to Naval officers — built in eastern Hillsborough County.
He still is operating a run-based system (Newsome ran a wing-T, Navy subsists on the triple-option). A straight-A student from kindergarten through 12th grade, he’s still excelling academically (though that ‘C’ in chemistry his first semester at Navy still eats at him).
He still can rattle a bicuspid on contact. By all accounts, his parlance still is suitable for Nickelodeon audiences.
“I’ve heard him maybe go like, ‘Dang it’ in practice, but I’ve never heard him curse,” Geter said.
And this: Four autumns after leading Newsome to the Class 7A region final, Worth still can simultaneously lower his shoulder and lift those around him.
“I think the one thing that hasn’t surprised me is just his leadership has inspired the rest of our team,” said Niumatalolo, forced to summon Worth when starting quarterback Tago Smith tore up his knee in the first half of the season opener.
“He’s just one of those leaders that, if you’re the offensive line or a wide receiver or slot back or anybody else — even on defense — and you see your quarterback running over linebackers and playing with great physicality, I mean, it just ups the physicality of your whole team.”
Until about seven weeks ago, it seemed that 6-foot-1, 205-pound package of durability and pitch-read pluck might remain unopened. For good.
Worth, who never missed a game or suffered a significant injury in four varsity seasons, had done little outside of holding for kicks his first three years in Annapolis. While predecessor Keenan Reynolds set the Division I record for career touchdowns (88) and rushing yards by a quarterback (4,559), Worth ran three times (for 10 yards) and threw one pass (a pick).
Then, Smith beat him out for the starting job this past spring and summer. “It was definitely tough,” said Worth, who will graduate in May before embarking on his required five years of military service. “It was tough to try to find any way to kind of contribute to the team.”
Fortunately for Worth, he had an ally in his corner in Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper. When Smith went down, Midshipmen coaches didn’t hesitate.
In his first career start, at home against Connecticut, Worth bulled in from the 1-yard line with 3:08 to play to help rally Navy to a 28-24 win. Three starts later, he was amassing 191 total yards in a 46-40 upset of No. 6 Houston — the Midshipmen’s first win against a top-10 team in 32 years.
Two weeks later, he ran for a career-best 201 yards and accounted for five touchdowns in a 42-28 romp of Memphis.
“I think he kicked our butt,” Houston coach Tom Herman said.
“I think he operates that system very well, and for different reasons than a guy like Keenan Reynolds. He’s very difficult to tackle. We had guys — very good tacklers on our team; very strong, capable tacklers — kind of bounce off of him, and him gain a lot of extra yards after contact.”
Now, Worth’s heading home to Raymond James Stadium — a 24-mile westward straight shot from Newsome — to face a beleaguered USF defense that ranks last in the American Athletic Conference against the run (206.3 yards per game).
The Bulls, who promise more energy and discipline this Friday than they showed in Friday’s 46-30 loss at Temple, know the cut blocks are coming. They know Worth is coming. At this state, nothing the Newsome alumnus does will surprise anyone.
Well, maybe one person: William Thomas Worth Jr.
“I definitely have (been surprised),” he said. “It’s been awesome. I mean, it was unfortunate circumstances the way it came about, but just to be able to take advantage of this opportunity and keep things rolling for the entire team, I’m definitely very excited about it.
“I’m just trying to jam-pack four years into one.”
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.