Charlotte Illinois Football 20

Defensive lineman Jer’Zhan Newton and the Illinois defense has held the past three opponents — Maryland, Purdue and Charlotte — to 20 or fewer points. The Illini will try to improve on that success on Saturday when Wisconsin visits Champaign.

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CHAMPAIGN — “Pull the trigger.”

It’s a phrase Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters uses a lot. With his defense throughout practice. On game day.

And then almost every Monday afternoon during his lone media availability of the week.

Walters knows it’s his go-to phrase. Mainly because it’s exactly how the 35-year-old former Colorado safety wants his Illinois defense to play.

The origins of Walters’ “pull the trigger” usage are murky. He’s not sure where or when the phrase entered his lexicon. His time coaching safeties, though, showed him that some players are naturally gifted at playing with abandon, while others were cautious.

“At some point, you’ve just got to pull the trigger and go in order to make the plays that you’re capable of making,” Walters said. “You can’t play this game afraid. You can’t play hesitant — not well you can’t.”

Walters has seen the Illinois defense pull the trigger more effectively the last three weeks. It’s part comfort with his system as the season progresses. It’s also part the changes he made after the Illini gave up 497 yards and 37 points to Texas San Antonio and 556 yards and 42 points at Virginia in consecutive games.

A little more zone coverage for the secondary instead of leaving his defensive backs on an island in man-to-man. Plus a few personnel changes, with Seth Coleman stepping in at outside linebacker and Taz Nicholson getting more run at cornerback.

The result of those changes has been rather drastic. Maryland still put up some big yardage totals, but Illinois held the Terrapins to 20 points. Then gave up just 13 points at Purdue and pitched a shutout in the second half to secure a 24-14 win against Charlotte this past Saturday that snapped the team’s four-game losing streak.

The Illini (2-4, 1-2 Big Ten) will try for their first winning streak this season when Wisconsin (1-3, 0-2) visits Memorial Stadium for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff. And if they’re able to achieve that, Walters’ defense will likely play a significant role.

“We had to do some self-evaluation as coaches in some things we believed in,” Illinois defensive backs coach Aaron Henry said. “As a defensive staff, we tweaked some things for the better of our guys, and the guys have been able to play free and fast. … I think our defensive scheme is catered to our players. It’s very simplistic and allows guys to play fast. Any time you’re going from game to game and you’ve got somewhat of a simple defense, guys can just play fast.”

Part of the defensive struggles in the early stage of the season came as Walters and the Illinois defensive staff learned more about their players. It’s one thing to install a defense in spring practice and fall training camp. It’s literally an entirely different ballgame sending said defense against another team.

“Now, we’ve figured out who we are and what we want to do,” said Kevin Kane, Illinois’ outside linebackers coach and associate head coach. “Now, it’s allowed those kids to pull the trigger because they know what they’re doing pretty well. You’ve seen the results of that.”

Walters said there is a balancing act between putting together the defense he envisioned when he was hired by Illinois coach Bret Bielema and then running what the defense can do successfully. What the team could handle on the field was ultimately more important than what Walters wanted on paper.

“I think that’s the beauty of coaching is you have to adjust to the players,” Walters said. “It shouldn’t be the other way around, in my opinion. Obviously, you have certain philosophies that you hang your hat on in terms of what you play, the style of which you play. But in terms of schematics, I think it all depends on what your roster looks like.

“I think, as a staff, we’ve done a good job of identifying what we’re better at than maybe what we would have preferred. The willingness to make adjustments is the willingness to wanting to put your kids in the best position possible to be successful. That’s the ultimate goal.”

Part of reaching that goal is generating confidence in the defensive players. Walters said he won’t be upset or frustrated if mistakes are made when the team is preparing the right way and playing with effort. Guessing and giving less than full effort? That’s what isn’t acceptable.

“If a guy makes a mistake and can tell me why he made that mistake — I saw this, so this is how I reacted — I can live with that every day of the week,” Walters said. “You coach it up. If it’s wrong, that’s on me. I’ll take that.

“It’s not like guys are out there freelancing. That’s not pulling the trigger. That’s playing stupid. The guys that are looking at the right things, playing with the proper technique and reacting quickly, I’m all for it. I’d much rather slow you down than try to speed you up.”

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

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