Column | Illini football needs Walters in program’s blueprint to contend in Big Ten

Coach Ryan Walters talks to the headset as a football game takes place. Ryan Walters looks to shape and build a successful defense as he works as the defensive coordinator.

Photo Courtesy of Ryan Walters' Twitter

Coach Ryan Walters talks to the headset as a football game takes place. Ryan Walters looks to shape and build a successful defense as he works as the defensive coordinator.

By Carson Gourdie, Staff Writer

Sure, Lovie Smith was never a head coach in college, but my golly, he could coach a defense! Do you remember the 2006 Chicago Bears? That defense carried a Rex Grossman-led offense to a Super Bowl appearance. Smith was the architect of the Tampa-2 defense, which helped the Buccaneers leap into prosperity. 

Well, the Smith experiment in Champaign didn’t work out, and the Illini allowed at least 26 points per game each season. If the defense didn’t win the turnover margin, Illinois lost — and that’s not a joke. Lovie Smith didn’t win a single game in Champaign without that feat. 

Coming into this season, I didn’t expect much from defensive coordinator Ryan Walters. Sure, Illinois returned a ton of starters, but that was from a defense that couldn’t succeed without turnovers. I honestly thought Purdue and Maryland would be able to name their point total. 

While I’ve had my doubts with Bret Bielema this past season, I must say he built quite a defensive staff, and he has found a rising star with Walters. However, it’ll be key for him to keep Walters away from other jobs as he looks to rebuild this program. 

Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez is dynamic. Maryland’s passing attack is lethal. Purdue, on paper, returned the conference’s No.1 passing attack. Despite this, Illinois has slowed down these offensives significantly — and this was without the help of multiple turnovers. Sure, the Illini have forced at least a turnover in each of those games, but it wasn’t like they forced five, as they did last season against Nebraska. 

Walters is a student of the game. His dad was a quarterback at Colorado. His babysitter as a child was current Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. Walters is young, and he’s ambitious. He does what he needs to do to move up the football ranks — and that’s not a bad thing.

Walters was heavily recruited by Gary Barnett to play quarterback at Colorado. But because he was behind Joel Klatt, the current Fox Sports commentator, he asked Barnett to switch him to safety. Barnett said no, but Walters didn’t back down, and he ended his career as an All-Pac 12 safety. 

Walters quickly moved up the ranks from position coach at North Texas and Memphis to defensive coordinator at Missouri. The Southeastern Conference is incredibly diverse. You have the air raid offenses run by Ole Miss. You have the ground and pound offenses run by Georgia. You have Alabama. Enough said. 

Walters left Missouri and headed over to Champaign for more cash and the chance to craft his own defense. He took the opportunity to coach under Bielema, who has experience running excellent defenses at Wisconsin and coaching under Bill Belichick. It was the logical step for him to move up the ranks.

In the toughest conference in football, Walters oversaw a defense that struggled at times. But in his second to last season, Walters’ defense surrendered 19 points per game. The last time Illinois allowed 19 points or less a game: 2011. I was in fifth grade. 

Walters’ last season in Missouri was compromised by COVID-19 and an all-SEC schedule. Sure, they allowed 30 points per game, but the Tigers were decimated by quarantine and injuries, culminating with offensive linemen playing nose guard. Also, the Tigers can’t exactly match up — talent wise — with the Floridas and Georgias of the world. 

Say what you want about Illinois, but I don’t think this program should consider six wins a success. Illinois is the biggest school in the state. Illinois has some of the nicest facilities in the nation — let alone the conference. 

Ron Zook was horrible toward the end of his time in Champaign, yet his tenure ended with back-to-back bowls. Tim Beckman wasn’t a good fit — and it ended with a bowl. Lovie Smith was fired — and I believe it was likely Illinois would’ve made back-to-back bowls in 2019 and 2020 without COVID-19. 

Despite being “so horrible” and “such a dead program,” Illinois and bowl games aren’t out of this world. Illinois isn’t Kansas. When Rutgers, Minnesota, Indiana and Purdue can become consistent bowl contenders even before a full recruiting cycle, so can the Illini. 

I’m not going to sugarcoat: The offense frustrates me. I do not believe Brandon Peters should ever take another significant snap for the Illini. But this defense and Walters makes me believe the Bielema era translates into yearly bowl appearances. Even without Devon Witherspoon and Jake Hansen, Purdue was held to 13 points. Under Walters, the Illini are flying to the ball, and they haven’t relied on outrageous turnovers for success. 

Walters will one day become a head coach, but what will his path to that position be? Will he jump from Illinois to a Group of Five head coaching job? Maybe. But what I think is possible is that Walters may leave for a coordinator job for a big program. Dave Aranda left Wisconsin for Louisiana State. Marcus Freeman left Cincinnati for Notre Dame. Don Brown left Boston College for Michigan. 

If Walters improves this defense — meaning they consistently give up 20 points or less each season — programs like Ohio State could come calling. Walters brings youth and intellect to the program, and he’s been the bright spot on the 1-4 start so far. Defense is a must in the Big Ten, and the Colorado alum has the chance to craft the best defense since the Ron Zook era. 

He needs to be a part of this program, and Bielema will probably need to cough up some dough to keep him here. While Alabama can have a revolving door with coaches, most programs aren’t as fortunate. Clemson keeps the assistants home. Michigan State, under Mark Dantonio, kept all his assistants. Iowa and Northwestern had the same coordinators for years. It builds unity, and Illinois won’t be an exception. 

 

@GourdieReport

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