Massive changes for Illinois football defensive staff as Walters, Kane leave for Purdue, Henry elevated to coordinator

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James Hoeck

Head coach Bret Bielema speaks to referee during game against Virginia on Sept. 10. Bielema speaks on the Illini’s defensive coordinator position and Ryan Walters who is set to transfer from the Illini as announced on Dec. 13.

By Jonathan Alday, Assistant Sports Editor

After the departure of former Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters and the subsequent departure of co-defensive coordinator/outside linebackers coach Kevin Kane, Bielema’s staff is poised to look noticeably different ahead of the Illini’s bowl game in Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 2, 2022 and of the 2023 season.

“A year ago, as we started to play well down the stretch, I knew the value that Ryan (Walters) had in our program that others would want,” Bielema said. “I was planning for him to be gone since bye week two.

“When Purdue became (available) I remember telling myself, ‘That’s the one where he’s going to go.’”

On Dec. 13, Purdue announced that Walters would become its next head coach after the departure of Jeff Brohm to his alma mater, Louisville. A few days before the official announcement, Walters informed Bielema of the status of his hiring, which was progressing rapidly.

Bielema sat in a hotel lobby in Jackson, Miss., with Henry, who was out recruiting with him, and told him of the new situation.

Bielema asked Henry “are you ready?” which was met with puzzled remarks as their departure to their next stop was still some time away. Henry was then offered the defensive coordinator position, giving an “awesome response” to Bielema, who had offered him a football scholarship as a junior in high school.

Bielema always knew that Henry had that ‘it’ factor. Since coaching him at Wisconsin, he has seen the now 34-year old grow into the coach and leader he is today.

“In a lot of ways, he’s a lot more mature than I (was when I became a play caller),” Bielema said.

Henry blew Bielema away when he first introduced him as part of the staff in his first spring at Illinois, who had never seen him in a high coaching position since his departure from Wisconsin.

“I had all these coaches that he had worked with talk about the touch that he has and the voice that he carries,” Bielema said. “I remember sitting in the room and watching a young man that I saw as an 18-year-old player, and he had me with goosebumps. I said to (Walters) after that meeting, ‘He’s got it, doesn’t he?’”

Kane, who many thought would be next in line to Walters, was informed by Bielema of his staffing decisions. About a week later, he told Bielema he would follow Walters to Purdue.

“For him to be the sole play-caller there, I can’t blame him for that,” Bielema said. “I knew the decision was going to be tough for Kevin (Kane). Everyone gets rewarded in these opportunities.”

The newly created holes in two defensive positions creates questions ahead of bowl preparation. Bielema announced to the media on Saturday that his remaining staff would take on more position groups. Henry will assume responsibilities over the entire secondary, meanwhile defensive line coach Terrance Jamison and inside linebackers coach Andy Buh will handle the defensive front. Graduate assistant Preston Gordon will help coach the outside linebackers.

The departure forces Bielema to open up his contacts list of connections accumulated throughout his football journey. The list of contacts has been active, even without his direct interactions from Bielema.

“Staffing is everything for me,” Bielema said. “I have an idea of a couple DB coaches that I want … Up front … I’ve been bombarded with people reaching out to me, NFL, college, coordinators, noncoordinators, former head coaches, I’m really going to take my time with that one.”

Despite the changes, Bielema is sure that his team is going to be ready for their first bowl game in three years and for the future season.

“We’ll make changes. We made changes from Year One to Year Two based on our strengths, and we’ll do the same thing this year.”

While many may be worried about Henry’s age and experience, Bielema, who had his first play calling role at 31, isn’t.

“Age is just a number,” Bielema said. “Everyone has gotta start somewhere.”

 

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