There’s been a not-insignificant amount of hand-wringing around the news that Ryan Walters is leaving Mizzou for Bret Beliema’s staff at Illinois. It would be one thing if Walters were recently fired and looking for a place to hang his hat. But taking a worse job — calling it a “lateral move” would be charity, sorry Illini fans — while on seemingly good terms with the Missouri program has caused some concerns.
However, it makes more sense than you’d think when you stop and consider the context. Walters was not Eli Drinkwitz’s hand-picked defensive coordinator, even if he was retained during last year’s transition. Walters was brought in under Barry Odom’s tenure and, despite his reputation as a rising star in the coaching ranks, did face some heat during his time as a Tiger. That heat turned up over the back half of 2020, when the Tigers were eviscerated on the defensive end several weeks in a row. Not all of that was Walters’ fault, but can you really blame him for wanting to find a position with better job security? He’ll also tie his wagon to Beliema, who’s a name-brand coach and can help Walters further his career.
All that being said... Missouri now finds itself with an important staff opening. If you believe that Walters’ exit has been in the making for some time, it would logically follow that Drinkwitz is already deep in his search for the next Tiger DC. Who could be on that list? We compiled some names, both obvious and outside-the-box.
The Big Names
Ah, yes. Into the mouth of madness we proceed.
The likelihood of, “Will Muschamp, Missouri Defensive Coordinator,” is slim, but it is tantalizing. After all, the guy keeps getting hired by SEC schools. He’s got to have some sort of positive qualities, right?
All kidding aside, Muschamp has the experience and name recognition to be a splash hire at Mizzou. He’s a great recruiter and is familiar with the SEC footprint. He has connections to Auburn — though not Drinkwitz specifically — and is looking to rehab his image (again) after another failed stint as a head coach at an SEC East school. And despite the many cons one could point out about his coaching stints at Florida and South Carolina, he does still run out some tough defenses.
Muschamp has reportedly already turned down Texas, so he likely won’t turn around and say yes to Mizzou. And, to be honest, he probably wouldn’t be the most welcome name. But Drinkwitz could do a lot worse, and Muschamp’s hiring would continue the surge of attention the Tigers are getting on a national stage.
This would be something, wouldn’t it? From head coaching favorite at Auburn to Mizzou’s defensive coordinator in a few short weeks. Regardless of where we hope the Tigers are headed, you have to acknowledge the perceived fall from grace that would be for a coach like Steele.
But then again... would Steele really view it that way? After all, he’s spent the better part of two decades coaching for blue blood schools where coaching turnover is demanded after every season that doesn’t end in a New Years Six bowl or a CFP berth. That’s particularly true of Auburn, where he’s spent the past five years of his career.
When you consider how little power a DC would have at a school like Auburn or LSU or Alabama... the Missouri job suddenly becomes a lot more appealing. After all, Eli Drinkwitz is recognized as an offensive mind and spends his time calling plays. You’d think he would prefer a coordinator who can handle the keys to the defense with little-to-no interference. This becomes even more notable when you consider that Steele has worked extensively with Gus Malzahn, after whom Drinkwitz has based many of his offensive concepts. Steele would be entering a position with a good schematic fit and far more job security.
This is all easier said than done, of course. You don’t spend years coaching at Alabama, LSU and Auburn without being desirable. Hiring Steele would cost Missouri a pretty penny. But when you consider the vast experience he brings, along with the ideological chemistry he would already have with Drink, it’s easy to see that Steele would be nothing short of a home run.
PS: Oh, and he’s a pretty darn good recruiter. Seems like Missouri could use more of those, no?
The Internal Candidate
If Eli Drinkwitz wants to maintain some stability on his staff (and with recruiting), Gibbs would appear to be the obvious choice. The secondary coach filled in for Ryan Walters when he missed a game in the 2020 season and has plenty of experience as a defensive coordinator. Gibbs held the position at Houston from 2013-2014 and at Texas Tech from 2015-2018. Yes, it is worth mentioning that Gibbs’ defenses as a Red Raider were never particularly inspiring, but also consider that the style of offense Kliff Kingsbury ran may not have been conducive to defensive success.
Another benefit to retaining Gibbs? He’s been cited as a good recruiter, particularly in some of Missouri’s more recent commitments. Yes, Eli Drinkwitz seems to be the common denominator in Mizzou’s unprecedented ‘crootin success, but hiring Gibbs would help stabilize any commitments that could otherwise be shaky.
The “Oh, really?” Candidate
This here is a category of one, and it came to be while I was doing my research. He wasn’t a name that popped up until I was scanning teams with good defenses, and became even more interesting when I dug into his past. But if Drinkwitz wants a guy with experience and a proven track record, it’d be hard to do better than Clayton White.
White, the defensive coordinator at Western Kentucky, has a direct connection to Drinkwitz — the two coached together at NC State in 2016. From there, he moved to WKU, where he’s turned the Hilltoppers into a formidable defensive unit. In Defensive S/P+, they ranked 83rd and 93rd in White’s first two seasons, but made the leap to 31st in 2019’s SP+ rankings. They didn’t see much of a drop in 2020, ranking 38th. The scheme would be different, as White runs a 4-2-5, but Missouri has the defensive talent coming on the line to make that an effective change.
While White may not at the top of the list, he’s a guy who makes sense, especially in the, “young-and-upcoming,” vein of coaches like Drinkwitz.
The Long Shots
I’m categorizing, “long shots,” as lower level defensive coordinators who may be looking for a step up in the coaching world. Drinkwitz seems to value recruiting and personal connections with his staff, and these coaches don’t necessarily fall into those categories. But providing coaches a path forward in their career is a tried and true practice, one that Drinkwitz could easily follow as he looks to make his own stamp on Missouri Football.
When you scroll down the latest SP+ rankings for the 2020 college football season, you’ll find something strange at No. 64, just four spots ahead of the Tigers. San Diego State, which finished 4-4 on the season rated as the No. 8 defense in the country, dragging with it the No. 119 offense. Who is the architect of this Top 10 defense? That would be Kurt Mattix, who would qualify as a truly outside-the-box hire. Mattix just completed his first season with the Aztecs after spending four years at Eastern Kentucky. His first season couldn’t have gone better, though. Is he really in consideration? Probably not, but the results are hard to ignore in year one.
If Drinkwitz wants a guy with a more proven track record, he could also gives David Reeves a call. Reeves is the architect of two consecutive Top 10ish defenses at UAB and, aside from a stint as a graduate assistant at Alabama in the 90s, has yet to make the Power 5 leap. If Drink is looking for a guy who could be ready to take a step up in the coaching ranks, you’d think Reeves would be interested in a move to the SEC.