CHAMPAIGN — Bret Bielema spent sufficient time last week discussing the benefits his first Illinois football team derived from its eight weeks of pre-spring ball training under new strength and conditioning coach Tank Wright.
Ryan Walters carried that torch a little further Monday.
“Coach B’s plan has been genius,” the Illini defensive coordinator said on the eve of the Illini’s first spring practice under Bielema. “These guys look and move around way different (after) being able to work with Coach Tank for those eight weeks. It’s like getting an extra summer conditioning.
“And then you stretch it out to spring ball for five weeks ... and that’s vital in terms of learning a new system and getting to know players, and players getting to know coaches. So the fact he was able to take time with this spring, I think, is going to pay huge dividends come the fall.”
Walters has watched ample film of his Illinois defense from their past college seasons. Beginning Tuesday morning, he opens an extended opportunity to view those players up close and personal on a unit that finished last in the Big Ten in total defense and rushing defense during the 2020 season.
“You look at game tape ... it’s a small sample size of who that player is as an athlete,” said Walters, entering his first season at Illinois after spending the past three seasons as Missouri’s defensive coordinator. “We’ll see another sample size when we get into spring ball, in terms of seeing them actually play football and put pads on and go execute a call.”
Walters said the defense is operating with a “very fluid and fluctuating depth chart” entering spring workouts.
“Nothing is set in stone right now,” Walters said. “Guys will be learning multiple positions, and we’ll change up who’s out there with the ones and the twos day to day, and could be period to period.”
Walters didn’t discuss any specific players on Monday afternoon, though he did acknowledge he’ll work directly with Illinois’ safeties this spring.
That alone should give Illini fans a better idea of how some players are being identified ahead of the 2021 season, considering Bielema last Thursday said “we’re calling everybody a DB (defensive back) right now because we don’t know where everybody’s going to fit in.”
Tony Adams, Devon Witherspoon and Sydney Brown are among the top returning defensive backs on a roster that added Georgia transfer Prather Hudson earlier in the offseason.
“No matter what the drill is, those guys are going 1,000 miles an hour,” Walters said of the safeties. “I love that about them. ... We’ve got to create and develop some depth a little bit, but I’m liking where they are right now.”
Walters didn’t offer extensive answers to a couple of key defensive questions.
One of those is the change in listed position for guys like Owen Carney Jr., Isaiah Gay and Seth Coleman. All three played at defensive end last season but are now listed at outside linebacker.
“Just the way we’re structuring the defense,” Walters said. “We’re just calling it what it is. Those guys are having fun with it.”
The other is identifying the defense by a particular scheme, something Bielema also opted to avoid last Thursday.
“It’s hard to label a defense ... as like a cookie-cutter, we’re a 4-3 or we’re a 4-2-5 or we’re a 3-4. I think the goal is to be all three of those at any given moment in time,” Walters said. “I don’t really know what I’d call it. It’s just Illinois’ defense.”
Walters wasn’t afraid to admit the Illini are “at the initial stage” of implanting their defensive scheme.
“Day one install is where we’re at right now,” he said. “I’m sure it’ll evolve as we progress through spring and get into fall, but I’m happy where we’re at.”
Walters also appears to have a good rapport with his fellow defensive assistant coaches. Walters joined defensive line coach Terrance Jamison, linebackers coach Andy Buh, outside linebackers Kevin Kane and defensive backs coach Aaron Henry at a local hotel while they all searched for more permanent housing in the area.
“It’s like you’re back in the dorms with our buddies. You develop chemistry that way,” Walters said. “Not only are they high football IQ coaches, but they’re good people. Good character guys. No-ego guys. And that’s what you need ... to put the best product out there in the fall.”