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Ryan Walters and Eli Drinkwitz could both be better off with a fresh start

Ryan Walters is a good coach who seems like he wanted a change of scenery. That’s okay, and it might ultimately be best for both parties.

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It’s official: Ryan Walters has been named the next defensive coordinator at Illinois. If you were surprised by this news, you’re not alone. I mean, let’s do a quick ‘say it aloud test’: An SEC defensive coordinator making an annual salary of $900,000 willingly decided to make - at best - a lateral move? Why would he do such a thing?

It’s hard to say what Walters’ motive was, to be sure. But when I saw this Tweet from the great Dave Matter, it started coming into focus.

It certainly sounds like this was a situation in which both parties were ready to move on. That’s not to suggest Walters is a bad coach or that Eli Drinkwitz and Walters have a bad relationship. I don’t believe that to be true.

I should add that I’m personally a fan of Walters. I talked with him on a number of occasions when I covered Mizzou for KTGR in Columbia and I always enjoyed our interactions. He was approachable and it wasn’t hard to see how he became known as a quality recruiter and a young coach on the rise.

Sometimes things just don’t fit for one reason or another.

Disclaimer: What I’m about to say is pure speculation mixed with my attempt at reading between the lines a bit.

My guess is Walters and Drinkwitz were an arranged marriage. Mizzou’s defense had been solid under Walters. Drinkwitz didn’t have a clear and obvious upgrade to bring with him as the Tigers next defensive coordinator when he was hired. So, the two decided to make it work, even if only for a year.

It worked out alright for Mizzou, all things considered. Walters was reportedly the main recruiter for Ennis Rakestraw last spring. He’s also listed as one of the main recruiters by 247 Sports for 2021 commits including 3-star defensive end Arden Walker, 3-star safety Tyler Hibbler, 3-star linebacker Zachary Lovett and 3-star defensive tackle Mekhi Wingo. He put in the work on the recruiting trail, and that should commended. That doesn’t always happen when a coach is looking for an exit strategy.

Looking back at Walters’ tenure at Missouri is a difficult task. He arrived on campus as the Tigers’ safeties coach when Barry Odom took over as defensive coordinator in Gary Pinkel’s final season in 2015. Walters was promoted to co-defensive coordinator for the 2016 and 2017 seasons with DeMontie Cross. Walters was promoted to defensive coordinator in the middle of the 2017 season when Cross was fired and served in that capacity for three-plus seasons, including this year under Drinkwitz.

That should be plenty of time to come up with a firm answer on whether or not Walters is a good defensive coordinator, but I don’t have a strong take on that. I always struggled to interpret how much of Missouri’s defense from 2017-2019 was Walters’ doing and how much of it was Odom’s. If I knew for certain it was all Walters’ doing, I would be confident in saying he’s a good defensive coordinator. Without that knowledge, though, it’s hard to say for certain.

Mizzou Defensive Stats in SEC Play:

Statistical Category: 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
Statistical Category: 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
Points Allowed Per Game: 18.6 (3rd) 35.0 (11th) 33.8 (10th) 24.5 (5th) 22.4 (4th) 32.3 (9th)
Rushing Yards Allowed Per Carry: 3.5 (2nd) 5.5 (11th) 4.5 (7th) 3.6 (4th) 4.1 (5th) 4.5 (9th)
Passing Yards Allowed Per Attempt: 6.2 (4th) 7.7 (T10th) 8.2 (T9th) 7.8 (9th) 7.2 (T9th) 7.9 (9th)
Total Yards Allowed Per Play: 4.6 (1st) 6.4 (10th) 6.2 (9th) 5.6 (6th) 5.5 (7th) 6.1 (10th)
Sacks Per Game: 2.5 (4th) 2.9 (2nd) 1.75 (10th) 2 (8th) 1.4 (T12th) 1.9 (T10th)
Takeaways Per Game: 1 (T12th) 1.4 (T8th) 1.5 (T4th) 1.1 (9th) 1 (T11th) 0.9 (T13th)
Third Down Conversion Percentage Allowed: 45% (13th) 48% (14th) 45% (10th) 30% (2nd) 36% (5th) 38% (4th)
Red Zone TD Percentage Allowed: 46% (7th) 65% (11th) 57% (6th) 48% (3rd) 56% (T6th) 81% (14th)

The results were up-and-down. The Tigers were great defensively in 2015 under Odom, then regressed in 2016-2017 when Walters and Cross served as co-defensive coordinators. Then, there was a rebound defensively in 2018 and 2019 before another crash in 2020.

How much of those peaks and valleys was based on coaching and how much was dependent on the Tigers’ personnel? Good question. It’s probably, as usual, a healthy combination of both.

It also begs the question of what a “Ryan Walters defense” looks like. This season was supposed to give us the answer. And, well, I guess it did to an extent. Walters put together some really impressive third down blitz packages. His players played really hard. He found a way to make it work despite a ton of youth at the cornerback position. He coached much of the season without knowing who would be healthy enough to play along the defensive line.

That’s a lot to overcome as a defensive coordinator. Those factors help explain how the Tigers gave up 48 points to Arkansas, 49 points against Georgia and 51 points at Mississippi State to close out the season. It does not excuse it, no, but it does help explain it.

In the end, I’m still not sure I truly know how good of a defensive coordinator Walters is. He might be great for Illinois. He might struggle without Odom. If I said I had a lean one direction or the other, I would be lying.

I think Walters is a good recruiter. He’s credited as the lead recruiter by 247 Sports on Jarvis Ware, DeMarkus Acy, Ennis Rakestraw and Jalani Williams. I’m pretty confident he had a significant role in the recruitment and development of Joshuah Bledsoe, Tyree Gillespie and Martez Manuel. That’s a heck of a group of players to be able to point to.

I’m confident in saying Walters is a very good safeties coach. The jury is still out on the job he’ll do as a defensive coordinator at Illinois. And that, more than anything, is why I believe this move makes sense for both parties.

Walters gets out of Odom’s shadow at Missouri and gets to build his defense at Illinois. Drinkwitz gets to hire “his guy” as the next defensive coordinator. Both coaches get to move in a new direction, and both could be better for it.