Even with things looking kind of ugly right now with the Illinois football program, there are a few bright spots on the team.
One of the bright spots this season has been with first-year defensive coordinator, Ryan Walters. Walters joined the Illini after spending six seasons on the Missouri coaching staff in some defensive capacity. In less than a year after becoming the Illinois defensive coordinator, Walters has this unit looking better.
The most impressive thing to me about the job Walters has done, and the thing that makes me buy into what Walters brings to the table, is the fact he has made this Illini defense solid without having a recruiting class or two under his belt.
Walters has taken hits, but the Illinois football defense remains resilient.
Young players from the 2021 class haven’t had a huge impact on the team just yet because, well, they are freshmen. You can’t expect 18-year-old kids to be the star of the show on the defensive side of the ball.
So, Walters had to take what he inherited, mixed in with a graduate transfer or two, and improve this defense.
A returning player who could help the secondary was Nate Hobbs. Hobbs decided to enter the NFL Draft and was picked in the fifth round by the Las Vegas Raiders. He is having one of the best seasons by a rookie in the NFL.
Thankfully, Walters had a linebacker in Calvin Hart Jr. transfer into the program to help the linebacker corps. In the first game against Nebraska, Hart was sensational. He totaled 6 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery, and 1 touchdown.
Hart ended up leaving that game early and would miss the rest of the season after knee surgery.
There have been other injuries throughout the season as well. Even without an NFL defensive back in Hobbs, without a star linebacker in Hart, and with very few key additions on the defensive side of the ball, Walters has managed to actually improve the Illinois defense and the numbers prove it.
In 2020, the Illini gave up 34.9 points per game, which ranked No. 94 in the country. This season, we are only giving up 24.6 points per game, which ranks No. 52 in the nation.
Last season, Illinois was giving up 467.2 yards per game. This was one of the worst numbers in the country, as the Illini ranked No. 113. While it still isn’t where I want it to be, the Illini have improved to giving up 428.4 yards per game this season, which ranks No. 91 in the nation.
And the one area that Illinois was really good at with the previous coaching regime, turnovers, Walters isn’t a slouch either. The Illini averaged forcing 1.9 turnovers per game in 2020, which ranked No. 29 in the nation, and they are still up there this season with forcing 1.7 turnovers per game, which ranks No. 28 in the country.
At the end of the day, while Illinois is struggling on the field, there are some bright spots with the program. Walters is one of those bright spots. I think it would be smart for athletic director Josh Whitman to open up the checkbook and restructure Walters’ deal. We need to keep him here as long as we can.