Navy safety Rayuan Lane made two spectacular, game-changing defensive plays against Memphis, the type coaches rewind several times during film teamwide sessions.
First, Lane raced 25 yards to chase down tailback Blake Watson and push him out of bounds at the 1-yard line. That display of effort and hustle paid dividends one play later when Watson failed to secure the handoff and fumbled into the end zone.
Defensive end Justin Reed recovered for Navy, keeping the Midshipmen within four points with six minutes remaining in the game.
On the next Memphis possession, quarterback Seth Henigan launched a deep pass to wide receiver DeMeer Blankumsee, who was wide-open on a post route. Lane displayed tremendous closing speed in coming out of nowhere to undercut the route and intercept the pass. He returned the pick 25 yards to just shy of midfield to give Navy one last chance to score the go-ahead touchdown.
“If you’re watching that football game, you’d have to say Ray Lane was the best player on the field for Navy,” defensive coordinator P.J. Volker said. “Ray has always been a very talented football player and this season he has taken his game to another level.”
Lane certainly has blossomed into an absolute beast in his third season as a starter for the Midshipmen. The 5-foot-11, 197-pound junior ranks fourth on the team with 15 tackles and also has a forced fumble.
However, the characteristic that makes Lane such a difference-maker is his ability to make plays on the ball in the air. He already has two interceptions and six pass breakups through three games, a rate of 2.7 passes defended per game that leads the country.
“Ray has always been an exceptional talent and now he’s matured into a very intelligent player,” Navy coach Brian Newberry said. “What’s most exciting is that he is going to continue to get better and better.”
Watching Lane break up a pass in the end zone against Notre Dame during the season opener or drill the tailback to force a fumble during the home opener against Wagner serves as reminders that Navy is fortunate he is still part of the program.
Lane quietly entered the transfer portal this past summer and several prominent schools tried to lure him away. Notre Dame, UCLA, LSU and Mississippi State were among the big-time programs that pushed hard to land Lane, who was eligible to leave the Naval Academy without penalty at the time.
That’s the same UCLA where former Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo now works as director of leadership. Notre Dame was very familiar with Lane since it plays Navy every year. The Fighting Irish previously snagged a talented transfer from the Midshipmen in safety Alohi Gilman, who is now in his fourth season with the Los Angeles Chargers.
After considering all the options, Lane decided to remain at the academy and recently signed the “two-for-seven” paperwork required of all midshipmen before the start of their junior academic year. That contract binds academy graduates to five years of military service following graduation.
Speaking to The Capital following practice Thursday afternoon, Lane called his time in the transfer portal “an interesting experience” but was reluctant to talk about the big-time programs that recruited him.
“I took my time and listened to what people had to say, but obviously I decided to stay here. I’m happy that I’m still here with my brothers,” he said.
Lane said the intangibles of the Naval Academy and the bond built with teammates was the main reason he elected not to transfer. It was a major life decision as he basically had to choose between a military career and the possibility of playing in the NFL.
“It came down to the culture and the people that are here,” he said. “This is just a very different type of culture. We grind together, we eat together, we do everything together. When you go through the same hard things it builds a special bond and it’s tough to go away from something like that.”
Newberry mentioned during his regular media availability last Monday how grateful he is that Lane was not swayed by scholarship offers that were no doubt quite enticing. He knows well how rare it is for Navy to have a player of that caliber in the program.
“You don’t see a player with a skill set like that come through here too often,” Newberry said during preseason camp. “Ray could definitely play anywhere in the country.”
It seems remarkable in hindsight that Navy and archrival Army were the only Football Bowl Subdivision programs to recruit Lane out of Gilman. The Jessup resident didn’t start playing football until his sophomore year at the Baltimore private school and his senior season was limited to two games because of COVID-19.
Lane could not attend any recruiting combines or camps during the 2020 summer because of the ongoing pandemic. He only had offers from Football Championship Subdivision schools Holy Cross and Sacred Heart when Navy started showing interest.
Navy assistant coach Ashley Ingram was responsible for discovering Lane and convincing him to attend a service academy. Lane, who was also a standout basketball player at Gilman, committed to Navy in early December of his senior year.
Speaking to The Baltimore Sun about Lane, Gilman coach Nicholas Bach, who had previously been an assistant at Buffalo, made a prediction that proved prescient.
“I think Navy is stealing a kid, especially because of COVID and the scholarship situation,” Bach said. “I think that because a lot of colleges are limited on scholarships this year, Ray is going to wind up at Navy and do a fantastic job. I know his passion for the game and training is really high, so he’s only going to get better.”
Not even Newberry, who was Navy’s defensive coordinator at the time, anticipated the impact Lane would make as a plebe. Lane started off playing special teams and was so impressive the staff started using him more at safety.
Lane started the last six games of the season and amassed 37 tackles, four pass breakups, an interception and a forced fumble. It was on-the-job training for the direct-entry recruit, who learned some tough lessons the hard way after being caught out of position at times.
“A lot of it was footwork and eye violations. I was looking at the wrong things,” said Lane, who nonetheless impressed Newberry by always playing fast despite sometimes making mistakes.
“I was determined to play as a freshman and told myself that whenever I got my chance, I would make the best of it and earn the trust of the coaches.”
Lane took a huge leap forward as a sophomore and routinely showed that he truly was special. He ranked third on the team with 71 tackles and four pass breakups while also totaling two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. It was an impressive campaign that featured enough big plays to fill a highlight tape that made Lane a highly sought target while he was in the transfer portal.
Newberry and Volker experimented with moving Lane to striker during spring practice. That hybrid outside linebacker position is perfectly suited to a playmaker as John Marshall showed last season in setting a Navy single-season record with 11 1/2 sacks. He also notched 19 1/2 tackles for loss, which ranks third in program history.
While it was intriguing to contemplate Lane in the striker role, the coaching staff ultimately decided he should stay at free safety. That decision has already been validated by the eight passes defended in three games.
“Ray is an eraser back there and has covered up some mistakes because of his instincts, awareness, speed and athleticism,” Volker said. “He has really grown and taken a leadership role on the back end.”
Newberry said Navy will occasionally move Lane closer to the line of scrimmage in nickel and dime situations. He will be utilized as a blitzer off the edge at times this season.
“When we’re in our base defense Ray is just too valuable back there at safety,” Newberry said. “You’d like to have three or four Rays that you could play in different places, but we don’t.”
After being promoted to head coach, Newberry brought in Eric Lewis to serve as defensive passing game coordinator. Navy gave up too many long pass plays last season and Lewis was charged with solving that problem. Having Lane patrolling the deepest portion of the field was crucial to eliminating those gigantic gains in the aerial game.
“Having Ray at safety gives us an added layer of protection,” Lewis said. “He’s kind of like an insurance policy.”
Having played in 24 career games with 18 starts, Lane is now a wily veteran capable of drawing on lessons learned during all sorts of live game situations. Newberry noted that Lane knows the defensive system much better and understands what is going on around him.
Volker and Lewis have been impressed by the work Lane does off the field to master the safety position. An example of that mental development came during the Memphis game when Lane made the clutch interception late. The Tigers ran the same play during last season’s meeting with the Midshipmen and it resulted in a long completion. Seeing the same presentation a year later, Lane immediately recognized the play and jumped the route.
“I think Ray has really turned the corner in terms of his preparation and that’s allowing him to play even faster on the field,” Volker said. “Coach Lewis has done a tremendous job with Ray as far as teaching the overall scheme. We talk about anticipating and not guessing. I think Ray’s film study and level of awareness has enabled him to anticipate routes.”
Lane has developed a close relationship with Lewis, who previously served as defensive coordinator at Bowling Green. He routinely calls or texts Lewis late at night while watching film in his dormitory room at Bancroft Hall.
“Coach Lewis has created a great environment in our position room and has taught us all a lot. He’s always dropping little tidbits on me,” Lane said.
Lewis loves working with a player who accepts coaching and has a strong desire to learn. He sees daily examples that Lane is “coming into his own as a player” and believes the sky’s the limit.
“I think the biggest thing with Ray is that he’s a very, very smart football player,” Lewis said. “He’s got a lot of experience, and now that is paying off.”
South Florida at Navy
Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: 1430 AM
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