On paper, it would not appear that East Carolina football fields a formidable offense. The Pirates (2-8) have struggled to gain yards and score points.
Mason Garcia opened the season as the starting quarterback, but was quickly replaced by Alex Flinn. Neither has been able to jump-start an offense that ranks 128th out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in total offense (272.9 yards per game) and No. 123 in scoring offense (18.1 points per game).
Despite those pedestrian numbers, Navy defensive coordinator P.J. Volker is quite concerned about the East Carolina attack. The Pirates have been balanced in a bad way, ranking 120th in passing offense (162.8 yards) and 113th in rushing offense (110.1 yards).
Nonetheless, Volker praised the unit during his weekly media session this week.
“I think they’re an extremely tough, physical outfit. I think they’re very efficient with how they move the ball,” Volker said. “It’s a balanced offense in terms of run and pass. They’re very diverse in what they do.”
Volker described Flinn as an accurate passer with a strong arm and said East Carolina employs a nice mix of short, intermediate and long passing concepts. He noted that Flinn, who weighs 233 pounds, is effective on designed quarterback runs or scrambles with his ability to lower the shoulder on defenders and gain extra yardage.
The Pirates feature one of the more talented tailbacks in the American Athletic Conference in Rahjai Harris, who has hurt the Midshipmen in the past. The 2020 AAC Rookie of the Year has been limited to 341 yards and four touchdowns this season.
Volker has memories of 2020 when Harris ran for 172 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown, against Navy. The 5-foot-11, 211-pound junior had 75 rushing yards versus the Mids last season.
It was the third straight season that an East Carolina tailback did damage on the ground against Navy as Keaton Mitchell, now with the Baltimore Ravens, ran for 94 yards and a touchdown in the 2021 meeting.
Harris sustained a torn ACL last season that required surgery, but Volker said the talented tailback has shown no ill effects.
“Harris is as good a back as we’ll play in this conference. He can get downhill and run physical between the tackles or he can jump cut and get out on the perimeter,” Volker said.
Left tackle Parker Moorer (6-5, 311) and right guard Jacob Sacra (6-6, 313) anchor an offensive line that is huge across the board. Nose guard Donald Berniard Jr. and tackle Clay Cromwell will play critical roles for Navy, which ranks 40th nationally in rushing defense (132.1 yards per game).
“It’s going to be smash-mouth football. If you like physical football, this is the game to go to,” said Volker, adding that he was shocked by East Carolina’s record based off the personnel he sees on tape.
Most coordinators prefer to operate from the press box high atop the field, a perch that provides a bird’s eye view of how player personnel are aligned and deployed.
Brian Newberry called the signals from the press box during his four years as Navy defensive coordinator. Volker has elected to work from field level and said there have been no adverse issues as a result of doing so.
Volker said he was always assigned to the press box as a young assistant under Trent Miles at Georgia State and Indiana State. He moved down to the field as inside linebackers coach at Kennesaw State when Newberry was defensive coordinator there.
Volker remained on the sideline after following Newberry to Navy in 2019.
“P.J. has been down on the field for a long, long time and has gotten used to seeing things that way,” Newberry said. “There are certain benefits from being up in the box, but he sees things really well from the field. He also wanted to be able to communicate directly with me and the players.”
Volker said he tried coaching from the press box like a typical defensive coordinator during the season opener against Notre Dame. He didn’t like it and has called the game from the field ever since.
“I just felt like for my comfortability that being on the field was best. It’s a lot easier to communicate with Coach Newberry face-to-face as opposed to on and off the channel from up in the box,” Volker said. “You’d like to have that bird’s eye view once in a while, but I think the pros outweigh the cons.”
Volker relies on assistants Eric Lewis and Brent Wimberly to provide him with valuable information from the press box. Lewis previously served as defensive coordinator at four schools, including Bowling Green.
“Eric is extremely knowledgeable, so to have his eyes up there is very, very helpful,” Volker said. “Brent is a rising star in this profession and he sees the game the same way I do.”
Meanwhile, Newberry is getting accustomed to coaching from the field after spending most of his career as defensive coordinator working from the box.
“It’s definitely very different being down on the field. I’d been in the box for a long time,” he said. “As head coach, I’ve got to be dialed into the game plan on both sides so I know what’s going on. I want to be able to give feedback and help in any way I can.”
Setting the tone
Inside linebacker Colin Ramos and safety Rayuan Lane continue to set the tone for the Navy defense, which ranks 40th nationally in points allowed (21.4) and No. 55 in total yards given up (367.7).
Ramos recorded 12 tackles in back-to-back games against Temple and Alabama-Birmingham. The undersized 5-foot-11, 215-pound junior leads Navy in total tackles (78) and quarterback hurries (five), while ranking second in pass breakups (four) and third in tackles for loss (4 ½).
“Colin does some mind-boggling things out on the field. There are so many times when I’m watching film and think to myself, ‘Holy smokes, that is absolutely amazing what he did right there,’ ” Volker said. “He’s just an animal out there.”
Lane has shown tremendous versatility and range in roaming from deep in the secondary to up close to the line of scrimmage and running sideline-to-sideline. The Gilman School product leads the team with four interceptions and seven pass breakups. He is tied for third in tackles (49) and also has two forced fumbles.
Newberry said Lane was “really raw” as a plebe, but has steadily developed a better understanding of what Navy is doing defensively. He described the Jessup resident as a “four-dimensional player” because he sees the big picture in terms of alignments and schemes.
“He’s just all over the place,” said Newberry, noting that Lane has become more of a factor in run support. “He’s a ball hawk and an eraser back there. I think the sky’s the limit for Ray and I certainly don’t think he’s reached his potential.”
Volker did not hesitate when asked if he felt Ramos and Lane deserved to be voted All-American Athletic Conference recognition.
“I don’t know how they couldn’t be,” he said. “They’re both exceptional players who are performing at a very high level. They’ve been instrumental to the success we’ve had defensively and they just get better and better every week.”
Lane put the exclamation point on Navy’s rout of Alabama-Birmingham with a 97-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Pete Medhurst, play-by-play announcer for Navy football radio broadcasts, provided an epic call of the pick-six and was practically hyperventilating by the time Lane waltzed into the “checkerboard end zone” at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Medhurst, a Southern High graduate and lifelong resident of Shady Side, said during the Anchors Aweigh podcast this week that he was simply “channeling the emotions” of Navy football fans.
Medhurst was referring to the fact the partisan crowd booed lustily after Navy was hit with personal foul penalties on consecutive plays during that UAB possession. Those two 15-yard penalties took the ball from the Navy 33-yard line to the 7. However, UAB could not punch the ball in as quarterback Jacob Zeno was picked off by Lane while trying to force a pass into the end zone.
Senior inside linebacker Will Harbour drew one of the personal foul penalties after being flagged for unnecessary roughness earlier in the game. Volker said he did not think either of Harbour’s hits was “egregious or malicious” and wants him to continue to play with a physical, aggressive mindset.
“They’re both bang-bang plays. I think the second one was tougher, in my opinion, because Will had already committed to the tackle before the quarterback started to slide,” Volker said. “It’s tough. They’re always going to protect the quarterback. We’ll try to get lower on that tackle.”
Volker said the Navy defensive coaching staff has a text thread and the Medhurst radio call of the Lane interception return was passed around on Monday.
“We all enjoyed that call. We were pretty fired up about that,” Volker told Medhurst. “I think you summed up how we all felt.”
Newberry sent tape of several plays from this past Saturday’s game to the American Athletic Conference supervisor of officials. Navy has been whistled for 39 penalties in six AAC games this season, while the opposition has been called for just 13. According to the referees, North Texas and Temple did not commit a single penalty during games against Navy.
“I’m disappointed with some of the calls we’ve gotten, but I guess every head coach could say that. It just seems like there’s been some imbalance of late,” said Newberry, adding that officials are “overly inclined” to throw flags involving hard hits. “They’re trying to make the game safer and I understand that, but I think at times they’re quick to the whistle on some things.”