Walters’ contract will move his compensation to third in the Big Ten and into the top 10 nationally among defensive coordinators.
Walters is one of the best defensive coaches in college football and has laid a strong foundation of success for the Illini defense. Along with a talented, veteran defensive staff, Walters has guided Illinois to one of the biggest defensive turnarounds in the country this season.
“It’s hard to state the impact Ryan has had on the defensive side of the ball and our whole program,” Bielema said. “Our players feed off his energy and teaching, and he has a tremendous feel for the game when he’s calling it. His leadership, combined with the proven minds in the defensive staff room, have allowed him to create the Illinois defense, not a scheme that has been done in the past. I’m grateful that our administration, led by Josh Whitman, was able to get in front of this and reward Ryan for the tremendous impact he’s had and is going to have in the future here at Illinois.”
“First, on behalf of my family, I would like to thank the Champaign-Urbana community for the way you’ve embraced us with open arms,” said Walters. “I am excited to continue to build the Illinois defense under the leadership of Coach Bielema and with the exceptional staff he has put together here. The vision and passion of Bret and Josh Whitman is creating a championship culture that is exciting to be a part of. Myself, the staff, and the exceptional young men in our locker room will continue to work tirelessly to compete for and win championships here at Illinois.”
Illinois’ defense has made a 13.3 points per game improvement from last season, the second-best improvement in the nation, while allowing 77.4 fewer yards per game. The Illini rank 35th nationally in opposing points per game, 44th in takeaways, and 42nd in third-down defense. Illinois’ scoring defense, total defense, and third-down defense have all improved more than 40 spots in the national rankings.
Illinois’ defense has been outstanding in Big Ten play, leading to wins at #7 Penn State and at #20 Minnesota. The defense has allowed 17.6 points per game in Big Ten games, the fourth-best in the Big Ten, and made a year-over-year improvement of 17.3 points per game in Big Ten play, the second-best conference-only improvement of any team in the nation. Illinois has held nine of their 10 opponents under their current season scoring average, including all seven Big Ten opponents. Earlier this season, Illinois held three consecutive opponents to 20 points or less for the first time since 2011, and is currently riding its second three-game streak of the same feat.
“In Ryan Walters, we have found one of the most dynamic, relatable defensive play callers in all of college football, and his impact on our program has been both quick and dramatic,” said Whitman. “He is an excellent teacher, tactician, and recruiter. It was important to us to move proactively to renew our commitment to Ryan and his family so that we can continue the forward momentum he has helped build. My thanks to Chancellor Jones and our university’s administration for their understanding and support of these important steps to advance Illinois Athletics. We are grateful to Ryan, Tara, and their sons for their commitment to our Fighting Illini family.”
The defense’s performance in conference road games has propelled the team’s success away from Memorial Stadium. Illinois has allowed only 29 points (9.7) in regulation of its three Big Ten road games this season, including only three TDs. In Big Ten road games, the run defense has allowed only 2.1 yards per carry (90 carries, 189 yards), including only 0.7 yards per carry in the fourth quarter of those games (19 carries, 14 yards).
The Illini defense has also improved consistently over the course of the season. Illinois’ stop rate – the percentage of a defense’s drives that end in punts, turnovers or turnover on downs – has improved 36 spots since Week 5, the third-best improvement in Power 5.
“I knew when I initially spoke with Coach Walters in January that he was coming to Illinois to set the defensive tone,” said junior defensive back Sydney Brown. “His ability to lead people and interact with the guys on the team has really inspired me. I’m excited to expand on what’s already been accomplished. The groundwork that has been created so far is simply the beginning of what this man will do. I’m excited to see Coach Walters coach a championship-caliber defense at Illinois.”
Walters’ impact has also been evident within his safety position group where junior Kerby Joseph has had a breakout season. Joseph ranks third in the nation and leads the Big Ten with four interceptions, while his three fumble recoveries lead the nation. Joseph is the highest-graded defensive back in the country according to Pro Football Focus (PFF) and combines with senior OLB Owen Carney Jr. to make Illinois one of only five FBS teams with a player who has four interceptions and one who has at least six sacks.
Walters’ base salary increases to $1,050,000 for the 2022 season, with $100,000 raises in each of the two seasons that follow. He will also be eligible for annual retention incentives of at least $250,000 per season. His contract includes a $1,000,000 buyout for any non-head coaching position in the Big Ten, and a $750,000 buyout for any non-head coaching position outside of the Big Ten.
I will have more on this developing story in a future print edition of the Decatur Tribune