P.J. Volker was in complete charge of the defensive practice field on Thursday. Navy’s new defensive coordinator was barking instructions, imploring players to perform better in a particular drill and teaching concepts with a loud, strong voice.
It was only the third practice of spring camp and Volker was already taking command of the unit. He has big shoes to fill as successor to Brian Newberry, who was promoted to head coach in mid-December.
“I texted Coach New after the first practice on Monday a pretty long, heartfelt message telling him how thankful and grateful I was for the opportunity,” Volker said.
Volker, formerly Navy’s inside linebackers coach, has worked with Newberry for six years dating back to their time together at Kennesaw State. He has developed a strong understanding of the defensive package employed by Newberry, who believes in an aggressive approach featuring stunts and blitzes from all angles.
Navy’s defense made dramatic improvement in Newberry’s first season and posted impressive statistics throughout his tenure. It is now up to Volker to ensure that defense remains a strength for the Midshipmen.
“To be here at the Naval Academy for the past four years has been an extreme honor. To have the opportunity to be the defensive coordinator is beyond my wildest imagination,” Volker said during a virtual news conference Friday. “I love everything about it. It’s something I’ve really wanted to do for a long time. To be in a leadership role and be in a ‘buck stops with you’ type of deal. To put my imprint on this defense and be able to connect with guys beyond my position group is special.”
Volker has already noticed the difference between being a position coach and coordinator. Players at all three levels of the defense now look to him for leadership and guidance.
“Obviously, when you get a title you carry a little bit more clout. When you get a chance to talk with the guys, maybe they listen a little bit more intently,” he said.
Inside linebacker Colin Ramos spent the past two seasons being coached directly by Volker and believes he will excel as the defensive coordinator.
“Coach Volker is a fantastic coach and I’m super-excited for him. He knows the Xs and Os better than anybody, so he’s going to have the defense in a great position. He’s a high-energy type of coach who gets us all going,” Ramos said.
Newberry has made it clear he will remain heavily involved with the defense to ensure the product stays true to his vision. Newberry knows he must strike a balance between overseeing the defense and allowing Volker to put his stamp on the unit.
“I’ve got a lot of time right now to be heavily involved. I’ll certainly sit in on meetings for both sides of the football,” he said. “I trust Coach Volker completely. I don’t feel I have to be in those meetings, but I want to be.”
While the base defense will remain the same as under Newberry, there will be tweaks here and there and Volker is excited to have a stronger voice in how the defensive system evolves. He learned from Newberry that to stay the same is to go backward.
“The main guts of everything are going to be very similar,” Volker said. “We have to find a way to accentuate what our guys do well, so there’s always going to be some tweaks, some changes, some nuances to things.
“We’re not going to just dust off the same old install and run the same things from the year before. Schematically, we may try to find a blitz here or a front there or a coverage package to add to what we’ve done. To have a say in all that is an opportunity I relish.”
Volker is fortunate to take over a defense that returns a ton of talent. Navy has nine returning starters on defense along with 16 others who were listed on the depth chart at the end of last season.
“We’ve played a lot of young guys the last couple seasons and now we’re getting to the point that those guys are upperclassmen,” Volker said.
While Volker has a strong grasp of the defensive philosophy instilled by Newberry, he has never been the coach in the booth calling plays. Newberry developed a feel for the game and had an uncanny ability for staying one step ahead of the opposing offensive coordinator.
Live scrimmage periods during spring camp will be Volker’s introduction to calling the defensive signals. He will be matching wits with new offensive coordinator Grant Chesnut, who has considerable experience after serving in that role for nine seasons at Kennesaw State.
“Coach Newberry is scripting different situations in practice so we have to be able to think off the top of our heads and have those calls roll off our tongues,” Volker said of himself and Chesnut. “Whether it’s a second-and-medium or third-and-short situation, we have to make the right call at the right time.”
While Newberry retained most of the defensive staff, the Midshipmen will have four new assistants on that side of the ball. Because Volker will continue to coach the inside linebackers, that created an opening and Newberry hired Brenten Wimberly to assist with the position, allowing Volker the freedom to roam the defensive practice field.
Wimberly played inside linebacker at Kennesaw State for Newberry and Volker. Wimberly has worked as a graduate assistant at his alma mater as well as Georgia Tech and Alabama.
“We’re working hand-in-hand with the inside linebackers. [Wimberly] helps with every single thing we do. It’s just another set of eyes that helps us grow as a football team,” Volker said. “Brenten brings a wealth of knowledge to the position. He’s made a big impact in a short amount of time already.”
Navy lost a valuable assistant when outside linebackers coach Joe Coniglio departed to become a position coach with the Los Angeles Rams. Ricky Brown, who has coached at Cincinnati and Ohio State among other schools, was hired to replace Coniglio.
Brown was hired away from Tulsa, where he had recently accepted a position as special teams coordinator and defensive assistant under first-year head coach Kevin Wilson.
Volker and Brown go way back — all the way to their days as teammates for the Our Lady of Lourdes Tigers youth football program in Cincinnati, Ohio. While Volker went on to play Division III football at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Ohio, Brown starred at the Division I level with Boston College. He spent seven seasons in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders, New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens.
“I’ve known Coach Brown since we were in the sixth or seventh grade and he’s just a phenomenal person,” Volker said. “I think we hit an absolute home run with that hire to coach our outside linebackers. I think he brings a ton of energy and instant credibility into that room.”
Navy’s third new defensive assistant is Eric Lewis, who replaces Ryan Crawford as safeties coach. Lewis has been a defensive coordinator at Bowling Green, Georgia State, Weber State and Eastern Michigan. He is the son of legendary NFL head coach and offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis.
Newberry has bestowed the title of passing game coordinator on Lewis, who played cornerback at San Diego State and has worked with the secondary at almost every stop of his career. Volker worked under Lewis at Georgia State and has stayed in touch ever since.
Newberry and Volker felt it was necessary to hire someone with vast knowledge of pass defense considering so many teams in the American Athletic Conference throw the ball so much.
“Eric is a pro and has meshed in seamlessly. At Georgia State, he took good players and made them great. I know he will do the same thing here,” Volker said. “It was incredibly important to get an extremely strong guy on the back end. In this conference, with how good the offenses and the coordinators are, to have someone with coordinator experience who sees the big picture is critical.”
Volker’s stated goal during spring camp is to make sure every single defensive player improves and the entire unit performs better with each practice. Navy ended the 2022 season ranked third nationally in rushing defense and 32nd in total defense. The Midshipmen were disruptive, amassing 39 tackles for loss and 23 sacks. Volker wants to improve upon all those numbers in 2023.
Newberry purposefully did not issue a depth chart prior to spring practice, sending the message that all jobs are wide-open. Volker has told the rest of the defensive staff to make sure all their players from returning lettermen to scout team members, get a look.
“You have 15 practices to prove your worth. If you don’t solidify your spot over the next 15 practices, the new guys coming in are going to get those opportunities,” Volker said. “It’s extremely critical for these guys to show who they are. We want to see dudes that are hungry and play hard. We’re going to make mistakes, but let’s make them being fast, being physical and being violent.”