By Bill Wagner
Dec 23, 2022 at 6:06 pm
P.J. Volker’s initial news conference was a pep rally of sorts.
Two days after being promoted to Navy defensive coordinator, Volker was an unabashed cheerleader for the program, the returning defensive personnel and — above all else — newly-hired head coach Brian Newberry.
Volker declared he was “fired up,” “jacked” and “extremely excited.”
“I think I’ve got the best job in America,” Volker said.
Newberry, who spent four years as Navy defensive coordinator, announced Tuesday during his introductory news conference as head coach that Volker, who previously coached inside linebackers, would replace him. Volker coached under Newberry for a total of six years at Kennesaw State and Navy.
Navy has ranked high nationally in most defensive categories throughout Newberry’s tenure and he said Volker was “an integral part of our success with his input to game-planning.”
“I have a certain level of trust in P.J. and we’re aligned. We see things the same way from a philosophical standpoint and the way we want to do things on defense,” Newberry added.
Volker stated the Midshipmen will remain unconventional and unpredictable on defense. Newberry was known for blitzing from all angles and doing as much as possible to confuse opposing quarterbacks. Volker has no intention to back down.
“We’re going to continue to build this thing moving forward to be an extremely aggressive defense that will be a nightmare for people to prepare for,” he said. “Our style of football is not going to change. We’re going to play smart, we’re going to play fast, we’re going to play violent and we’re going to play together.”
Newberry made it clear he will continue to be involved with the defense to ensure the vision he has for that side of the ball is maintained. He will continue to participate in defensive staff meetings, but otherwise will give Volker freedom to develop the unit and playbook.
Both men believe in the “power of counsel” and Newberry said the defensive game-planning at Navy has always been a collaborative effort. As defensive coordinator, Newberry was receptive to ideas offered by assistants and welcomed opposing ideas. There were times when some of his concepts were not implemented because staff members disagreed.
“I will have my hand in it, but you also want to give your coordinator the freedom to be creative and do some things he really believes in,” Newberry said. “If there is anything [Volker] feels strongly about and I feel good about it then we’ll roll with it.”
Maintaining the standard
Navy’s defense was outstanding throughout the 2022 campaign. The Midshipmen ranked sixth nationally in rushing defense, a feat made more impressive by the fact they faced three of the top 10 ground attacks in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Navy also finished eighth in fewest first downs allowed, 20th in sacks, 22nd in fumbles recovered and 30th in total defense. Volker now faces the challenge of maintaining the high standard.
“Nobody can put more pressure on me than myself. I’m going to take this ball and run with it,” he said. “We’re going to continue to build on the dominant defense that we’ve had here and it’s going to be something the Navy football family and community will be proud of.”
Volker said he and Newberry have already discussed play-calling this week. Volker said he has always watched film through the lens of a defensive coordinator, asking what plays he would call in certain situations.
“I’ve watched film for 18 years with the thought process that at some point this could happen. Just being prepared for whenever that opportunity came along,” he said. “[Calling plays] is something I relish and can’t wait to do. I’m really, really looking forward to it.”
Volker revealed that he will continue to coach the inside linebackers. Navy had strong inside linebacker play this season with Volker rotating Will Harbour and Jianni Woodson-Brooks at the Mike position, and Colin Ramos and Tyler Fletcher at Will.
“I want to have my hands on those guys because they control a lot of the things we do out there,” he said. “I think it will make the transition easier for me and I think I bring a level of expertise that will help those guys continue to grow.”
It was an interesting decision considering Newberry gave up coaching a position last season in order to focus on big-picture issues. Newberry had always coached the safeties while simultaneously serving as defensive coordinator.
In this case, Volker’s knowledge and expertise of the inside linebacker position was too valuable to lose. He called it a “very complicated, very nuanced” position to play within the Navy defensive system.
“I want there to be as little change as possible. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” Newberry said. “P.J. loves coaching the inside linebackers and is very good at doing it. I also think the culture in that inside linebacker room is important and P.J. brings a lot to the table in terms of that piece.”
Volker will be taking over a unit that will have tremendous experience and depth in 2023. Navy returns 10 starters on that side of the ball with outside linebackers John Marshall and Nicholas Straw the lone losses. The defensive line, inside linebacker corps and secondary remain intact.
“I’m jacked because we have a ton of talent returning,” Volker said.
Volker spent a total of seven seasons as an assistant to Trent Miles at Indiana State and Georgia State. He was out of work for a few months after Miles was dismissed by the latter school and is thankful for a chance meeting with an old friend at the American Football Coaches Association convention.
Volker knew Andrew Thacker, who is now the defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech. Thacker was the linebackers coach at Kennesaw State under Newberry and tipped off Volker that he was about to leave that post to take a job at Temple.
“I ran into Thacker at the convention and he said, ‘You would love working at Kennesaw State with Brian Bohannon and Brian Newberry.’ I met with Coach New and absolutely loved his style, how innovative and creative he was,” Volker said. “Coach New took me in with open arms and taught me his defense, taught me what he knew and I really haven’t looked back ever since.”
With Newberry being promoted to head coach then elevating a current assistant to defensive coordinator, Navy would appear to have an opening on that side of the ball for another assistant. However, Newberry does not see it that way and may go in another direction when filling that vacancy.
“The way I look at it, there’s not really a position open. We’re not short a coach in the defensive staff room because I’ll still be involved,” he said. “I’m looking at the whole picture. I’m thinking about shuffling some things around; It’s premature to say much more than that.”