A lot of Mizzou fans had the same reaction when it was announced on Thursday that Eli Drinkwitz hired his new defensive coordinator.
It’s a fair reaction, especially if you’re a college football fan who doesn’t follow the NFL. Steve Wilks is the Tigers’ new defensive coordinator. The last time he coached in college was 2005. He spent the next 14 years coaching in the NFL.
Steve Wilks’ Coaching History:
Wilks’ NFL career started with the Chicago Bears in 2006 as the Bears’ defensive backs coach under then-defensive coordinator Ron Rivera. Rivera left Chicago after the season and went to San Diego to take over as the Chargers’ linebackers coach. He was promoted to defensive coordinator the following season and brought Wilks to San Diego in 2009.
Wilks has mostly followed Rivera ever since. He served as Rivera’s defensive backs coach in San Diego from 2009-2011, held the same title on Rivera’s staff at Carolina from 2012-2014, was promoted to assistant head coach in 2015, and officially took over as Rivera’s defensive coordinator in 2017.
Then he went out on his own. Wilks was hired to be the Arizona Cardinals’ head coach in 2018. It was a disaster. The Cardinals didn’t have a quarterback and Wilks was, frankly, set up to fail. He was fired after one season. He took the defensive coordinator job with the Cleveland Browns the following season and (I would imagine) realized quickly he joined a sinking ship on Freddie Kitchens’ staff. The entire staff was fired after the season.
Wilks decided it was time for a break. 2020 was something of a “gap year.” He needed to recharge the batteries after a couple tumultuous seasons. Who could blame him?
And now he’s arrived at Mizzou. Wilks’ connection to Drinkwitz seems pretty simple. He played college football at Appalachian State in the late ‘80s, and Drinkwitz was the head coach at App State in 2019. It’s fair to assume the two met while Drinkwitz was at App State because Wilks reportedly met with Drinkwitz in Columbia while Wilks was out of work last spring. Wilks also has a connection with Mizzou defensive backs coach Charlie Harbison. Wilks played for the Charlotte Rage Arena Football League team in 1993 when Harbison was a coach on the staff, according to Dave Matter. Harbison was an assistant on Wilks’ staff in Arizona in 2018.
Steve Wilks’ Coaching Philosophy:
Do you like blitzing? I hope you like blitzing. Because Wilks is a big fan of blitzing. We have three years of evidence of what a “Steve Wilks defense” looks like. He spent one year in charge of the defense at Carolina (2017), Arizona (2018) and Cleveland (2019). His defense finished in the top four in the NFL blitz rate all three seasons, according to Football Outsiders. He blitzes his defensive backs at a top five rate in both Carolina and Arizona, but that data was not readily available for 2019.
“Wilks is aggressive, man,” former Panthers defensive back Captain Munnerlyn told Sports Illustrated. “He’s not believing in sitting back and let you dink and dunk us. We’re going to come after you.”
Now, I want to be fair here. It’s not like Drinkwitz hired a mad man to lead the defense. Wilks likes to blitz, but he’s also careful in the way he does it. He leans primarily on zone defense. He likes going with a cover four on obvious passing downs. So, yes, he’s aggressive. But he’s also practical. You’re not going to see a Gregg Williams style all-out blitz on every play.
Wilks was asked about his defensive philosophy when he was hired in Cleveland. He described it as a 4-3 base defense, but added that he plans to be “multiple.”
“I think you have to be in this day in age with all of the different things you are seeing,” Wilks said. “It can change week to week. I am aggressive by nature, but it is all about trying to put your guys into the best position to be successful.”
That doesn’t sound too dissimilar from what the Tigers did under Ryan Walters, so hopefully it won’t be a wild adjustment. I do expect a little more blitzing, though.
So, is Steve Wilks a good hire?
It has the potential to be a tremendous hire. As with any hire, it’s all about the fit. I’m confident Wilks is a good coach. I know he has the ability to develop defensive backs. We’ve seen it in the NFL, and I believe he can do it in college as well.
But there are fair questions to ask. This is not an iron clad case. Wilks has been removed from the college game for 15 years. Is he ready to recruit at this level? Will his scheme work in college as well - or better - than it did in the NFL? Does his scheme fit with the Tigers’ personnel?
These are all fair questions to ask. I tend to believe he can recruit at this level. His players seemed to love playing for him. He comes with the highest possible recommendation from Ron Rivera, who I consider to be one of the best human beings in the NFL.
This also seems like a good time to bring Wilks on board. This time three years ago he got what I can only assume was a dream job. He was named one of the 32 head coaches in the NFL. Two years later he had been fired twice and went through hell in both seasons. I have to imagine a year off from coaching served him well.
“When you go through two years like I did, you want to make sure that the next (job) is gonna have some longevity. You don’t want to go into a situation where there may be some speculation there, and all of a sudden you find yourself (and) it’s three years in a row,” Wilks told The Athletic. “Just really the thing about this league, there’s not really a lot of patience anymore. You’ve got to win now. I definitely want to get back into it as quickly as possible.”
I think this is going to work. It’s a hire that doesn’t come without risk. But the same was true when the Tigers hired Eli Drinkwitz to be their next head coach. The upside is Mizzou might have bought low on someone who is a legitimately great defensive coach. The downside, honestly, isn’t all that concerning to me.
Did Missouri consider other candidates who might have been flashier? Sure. But I’m hard pressed to imagine there were any candidates out there with a better resume than a former NFL head coach who spent multiple seasons as a successful defensive coordinator.
Drinkwitz was tasked with making one of the biggest hires of his career. He took the time to make sure he got it right, and he very well might have hit it out of the park.