This is the ninth feature of a series leading into fall camp focusing on the new Panther football coaching staff. Coming Friday: J.D. Williams.
The path you take means everything. No matter how hard you try, who you know or how much you understand the situation, in the end, where you end up in life comes down to the choices you make along the way.
P.J. Volker is acutely aware of that. He is quick to point out how “lucky” he has been, rising quickly through the coaching ranks. Elevated from coaching at the Division III level in 2009 to the Football Bowl Subdivision level in 2013, he is thankful for the opportunities and the relationships he has cemented along the way.
But you cannot take the “lucky” part of his story too seriously if you look at the facts. After all, it’s obvious he chose his own path.
Volker has a history, albeit a short one, of playing a part in turning programs around. Georgia State’s new linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator is only 30 years old but has already helped work miracles of sorts at Indiana State and his alma mater College of Mount St. Joseph.
During his playing days, Volker was a three-time letterwinner and two-time all-conference selection at linebacker with the Lions, a fledgling program that began play in 1990. Mount St. Joseph, located in Cincinnati, had just one winning season (at 5-4) in its first 12 years of existence, and was coming off a 0-10 campaign when Volker arrived. His squad lost its first game of the season, extending the team’s losing streak to 17 consecutive games, before finally getting back in the win column. It was a resounding success, a 51-0 victory that was a springboard to a 5-5 campaign as a freshman, followed by 6-4, 10-1 and 9-2 seasons to end his career. The last two years, Volker helped the Lions to the Division III playoffs.
|Three Questions with P.J.|
Why is Georgia considered such a good state to recruit?
What is your philosophy on coaching?
How have you fit in with other coaching staffs at GSU?
At the end of his freshman campaign, he met with his coach in what would set the stage for the rest of his career. During the fateful meeting, Volker shook off his initial naivety and realized that coaching could be in his future. It was the path he ultimately focused all his energy toward.
“[Entering college] I did not realize what coaches did all the time,” Volker said. “At the end of my freshman year, Jim Hilvert talked to me and said ‘You realize you can do this as a profession?’ It made me think [more about what coaches do]. Until then, I was all about playing football; I was naïve. I thought to myself then, ‘I do want to coach.’ I just knew.”
Volker’s father was his biggest mentor in life, but Hilvert played a large role in his development as a coach. Volker opened his coaching career at Thiel College in Greenville, Pa., and then moved with Hilvert to Thomas More in Kentucky. It was there that he received an unexpected phone call late in July of 2010. His old friend, Jesse Minter, was checking in. He said there was an opening on the defensive staff and wanted to see if Volker would join the Indiana State staff.
“Old” is a relative term as both coaches were still in their mid-20s at the time. And yes, it was the same Minter who is now the Panthers’ defensive coordinator and knew Volker all too well.
Their paths had crossed several years earlier. They did not know each other despite growing up around Cincinnati, but Minter also played with Volker on those same Mount St. Joseph’s teams. All four years. It was together that they turned the program in the right direction, and now Minter was looking for his dear friend – they were so close that each was part of the other’s wedding party – to join him and head coach Trent Miles in Terre Haute, Ind.
Volker was a couple months away from marrying his now wife Mandy, and the job was a restricted earnings position, meaning it would pay about half that of the fulltime salary he was earning at Division III. Volker found himself at a crossroads, but understood where that path could lead. Much of his initial thoughts about joining Miles still ring true today.
“You want to follow guys who are going in the right direction and have similar beliefs in what you believe,” Volker said of Miles. “Trent is a high-character, family man and those are the types of things I believe in. And that goes to the players we look for. We want great athletes but high-character guys as well. I know a lot of people want those, but we’re going to be picky and fight for them and feel like we have a lot to offer them.”
The rest is history, as they say.
In three years at Indiana State, Volker helped seven of his linebackers earn all-league status. His players cajoled ISU into the top five nationally for scoring defense in 2012, allowing a paltry 14.3 points per game. The stifling Sycamore defense allowed only 296.4 yards per contest, ranking sixth in the country, and paved the way for a meteoric upset of then-No. 1-ranked North Dakota State on the road.
|Football Coach Features|
|Trent Miles: (Football) Family Man|
|Harold Etheridge: Assuming Command|
|Jeff Jagodzinski: Enjoying the Journey|
|Jesse Minter: Like Father, Like Son|
|Keary Colbert: Actions Speak Louder Than Words|
|Tony Tiller: Location, Location, Location|
|Luke Huard: Driven to Succeed|
|Shannon Jackson:All About the Relationships|
|P.J. Volker: Path of Promise
|J.D. Williams: Falling into Football|
Now, the dynamic defensive duo has another improvement job on hand. Georgia State is not in disrepair like the programs they have already fixed. Instead, this time it is more of a building mentality they will bring to the job each day.
“We’re sticklers for fundamentals and execution and attitude and effort here,” Volker said. “That’s how our guys played at Indiana State when you look at the film. We may not have had the best athletes in conference, I can guarantee that, but our guys played as hard as anyone in the country.”
That mentality is what Volker is banking on to attract the next crop of players looking to blaze their own path into the record books.
“We say that anyone who comes to play here will build their own tradition,” Volker said. “There is some tradition here and we are going to expand on it, but it’s not engrained yet. We want to get guys in here who want to be a part of something special, guys who are trendsetters and who want to stand out.
“You want guys who want to be remembered as the first Sun Belt Conference champions [at Georgia State] and who played in the first bowl game in [school] history. You can’t take that away. If you want to be remembered down road, this is the time to be part of what we have going on at Georgia State.”
That’s a choice each person must make, which path they want to travel.