The B1G 10: Why it's only a matter of time before Ryan Walters wins big at Purdue
1. The B1G Story
In the spring of 2021, when Bret Bielema had just realized what he walked into at Illinois, he started talking about a young defensive coordinator he hired from Missouri.
When I asked him how he’ll get his hands around such a heavy lift, he said matter-of-factly, “with guys like Ryan Walters. Just incredibly organized and committed. And a terrific recruiter.”
That, everyone, is the key for Walters in his first coaching job at Purdue. The ship doesn’t turn from rough waters — where Purdue’s odds to win the Big Ten are tied for last among the 14 teams — without players.
Plenty of them.
So when Purdue athletic director Mike Bobinski was looking for a coach to replace Jeff Brohm, he wanted a recruiter and developer of talent. It took him all of 5 days to hire Walters after Brohm left West Lafayette for his alma mater Louisville.
Walters got the job, in part, because every time Bobinski asked about Walters, the responses were the same. Barry Odom raved about his time with Walters at Memphis and Missouri. Bob Stoops had him for a season as a graduate assistant at Oklahoma, and convinced then-North Texas coach Seth Littrell that he had to hire Walters.
Bielema said Walters was rare and ready, and frankly, wasn’t too thrilled about facing him every season.
Brohm was introduced at Louisville on Dec. 8, and Walters was officially hired Dec. 13 — but Walters had a contract offer in his hands 3 days after Brohm left.
“When I called Ryan, he answered the phone. He didn’t say hello,” Bobinski said. “He said, ‘What took you so long to call me? I already signed the deal.’”
Two days later, he was announced as coach of Purdue, and that set in motion a run of decisions that got the program stronger. Not long after Walters was hired, he called West Virginia offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, and a week after the introductory press conference, Walters had hired an elite OC and QBs coach.
Six days later, Harrell and Walters convinced former Texas quarterback Hudson Card to join the program — when Card could’ve gone anywhere.
Purdue had its coach, and Walters had his OC and quarterback — 2 critical pieces in the pass-happy era of college football.
“High level organization,” Bielema said 2 years ago.
Now it’s playing out in Walters’ first head coaching job.
2. In the cards
This thing only works 1 way for Walters at Purdue: The Boilers have to score points. Because under Walters, they’ll play stout defense.
Just like his defenses at Illinois, which in 2 seasons forced 48 turnovers (33 INTs), had 59 sacks and an opponent 3rd-down conversion rate of 32.4%.
Illinois led the nation in scoring defense in 2022 (12.8 ppg), and was No. 3 in total defense (273.5). Defense, everyone, will not be the question.
The first thing Walters did when he was hired was look at Purdue’s biggest weakness (quarterback), and went about fixing it. Card lost a quarterback battle with Casey Thompson in 2021 (by injury, as much as anything), then lost out in 2022 to former No. 1 overall recruit Quinn Ewers.
He never found his fit at Texas, but played well whenever he was on the field (11 TDs, 2 INTs, 65.4 completion percentage). Card could have transferred within the Big 12, and had interest from numerous SEC schools.
He chose Walters and Purdue — and what Walters was selling.
“I feel like he has a chance to be really special,” Walters said last month after 15 spring practices. “He hasn’t played a ton of ball as a starter, but he’s very mature, very poised. He’s got some talent, and I’m so happy he’s here.”
3. Building and growing
For all the good Brohm did at Purdue, he never really made it a place to be for elite recruits.
It’s a difficult pitch, but not untenable. The Purdue football facility is impeccable, and the university is in the middle of a $45-million upgrade of Ross-Ade Stadium.
There were pockets of success with Brohm, but Purdue needs sustainability. With USC and UCLA entering the Big Ten in 2024, Purdue can’t afford to fall further behind.
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The only way it changes is by consistently recruiting high schools and the transfer portal. Brohm’s 6 recruiting classes had an averaged ranking of No. 49 by the 247Sports composite.
More problematic, Brohm never sustained a run of strong classes to build a foundation. His first class in 2017 was 72nd, and the rest: 52, 25, 32, 75, 38.
By the time Walters was hired, the early national signing day was a week away and the 2023 high school class was all but wrapped up.
Purdue’s 2024 class is ranked 23rd in the nation, which — with only 8 commits and a long way to go until December’s signing day — would be better than anything Brohm produced if the momentum continues.
It’s a long slog to change direction and turn the ship. But it starts with players.
4. The surprising competition
Tanner Mordecai threw 443 passes last season at SMU, and had 10 INTs. In last month’s scrimmage at Wisconsin, he threw 4 INTs.
Suddenly, whether intended or not, Wisconsin may just have a quarterback competition between Mordecai and Mississippi State transfer Braedyn Locke.
In 2 seasons at SMU (and nearly 900 pass attempts), Mordecai threw more than 2 interceptions only once, a 3-INT game against TCU in 2021 — an upset win for the Mustangs when Mordecai also had 4 TD passes and ran for another score.
Until that INT-laden performance last month (1 was tipped), Mordecai had been stacking strong practices. While 1 scrimmage won’t determine who leads the Badgers’ new Air Raid offense, it at least gives Locke an opportunity.
New OC Phil Longo has been impressed by the way Locke prepares, and his knowledge of the Air Raid — he spent a season as a backup in 2022 under the late Mike Leach — and Locke has gotten better with each practice.
Mordecai is clearly Wisconsin’s No. 1, but Locke’s quick improvement will be worth watching in fall camp. Longo didn’t really have a QB competition in his time at North Carolina.
It was Sam Howell for the first 3 seasons, and Drake Maye for 1. There was no debate or decision.
It could be much different this fall at Wisconsin.
5. The Weekly 5
Five reasons the Houston Texans won’t regret drafting Ohio State QB CJ Stroud.
1. Watch the Peach Bowl tape vs. Georgia: 348 yards, 4 TDs vs. the best defense in college football.
2. He completed 69% of his passes in 2 seasons as a starter, throwing 830 passes.
3. The ball goes downfield. He averaged nearly 10 yards per attempt in 2 seasons.
4. An 85/12 TD/INT ratio.
5. As one NFL scout told me: “I watched tape of (Jaxon) Smith-Njigba, and I started thinking, every ball is right on him, no matter the level.”
6. Your tape is your resume
An NFL scout analyzes a 2024 draft-eligible Big Ten player. This week: Penn State CB Kalen King.
“(Joey) Porter (Jr.) was the guy we’ve all been talking about for (the 2023) draft, but King is the real deal. He’s not the tall and long guy like Porter, but he’s active and has great body control. Strong hands, and knows how, where and when to use them — and believe me, that’s not a given with college corners. He’ll get up on you, and he’ll mirror.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing: 2024 NFL Draft prospect to watch.
1. Michigan: RB Blake Corum: The NFL doesn’t value running backs unless they’re elite, but Corum will make an immediate impact no matter what round he’s drafted.
2. Ohio State: WR Marvin Harrison, Jr. A wide receiver in the top 5? Maybe — but he should be a top 10 pick if he builds on 2022.
3. Penn State: OT Olumuyiwa Fashanu. Would’ve been the 1st OT taken in the thin class of 2023. Can he move even higher?
4. Wisconsin: OT Nolan Rucci. A mid-round projection who could rise in 2023 working in the pass-oriented Air Raid offense.
5. Minnesota: TE Brevyn Spann-Ford. A big target (6-7, 270) with a large catch range.
6. Iowa: CB Cooper DeJean: A natural cover corner (5 INTs in 2022) who also excels in run support.
7. Illinois: DT Jer’Zhan Newton: A rare run stuff/pass rush player. Had 59 pressures in 2022.
8. Purdue: DE Khordae Sydnor. Raw 3rd-year sophomore who showed explosion off the edge in 2022.
9. Maryland: OT Gottlieb Ayedze. A Division II star at Frostburg State, scouts are intrigued by his transition to FBS.
10. Michigan State: OLB Jacoby Windmon. Undersized edge has 17.5 career sacks, and can improve stock with a big 6th season.
11. Nebraska: TE Arik Gilbert. A career of what-if. An uber-talent, but never put it together at LSU and Georgia.
12. Indiana: Edge Andre Carter. A disruptive edge at Western Michigan (12.5 career sacks), he must prove he can do the same in the Big Ten in his 6th season.
13. Rutgers: CB Max Melton. A true man cover corner with 5 INTs and 14 PBUs the past 2 seasons.
14. Northwestern: LB Bryce Gallagher. Active MLB with 190 tackles in the past 2 seasons; needs to show pass cover skills.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: the Big Ten moved closer to the SEC this year in the number of players drafted. Is this a sign that recruiting is improving? — Corey Phils, Cincinnati.
It’s a combination of things. It’s improvement in recruiting high schools and the transfer portal, and it’s development. They’re both critical.
If you want to know where the Big Ten has significantly improved of late, it’s depth and proficiency of coaching staffs. More to the point, it’s where Big Ten teams search when looking for head coaches.
This offseason, Wisconsin hired Luke Fickell, whose recruiting and development lifted the Cincinnati program to the Playoff. Nebraska hired Matt Rhule, whose recruiting and player development led to the quick turnaround at Baylor.
The Big Ten had 5 teams in the top-25 recruiting rankings, according to the 247Sports composite, and 10 in the top 50. If you add USC and UCLA, it’s 6 in the top 25 and 11 in the top 50.
More important, Big Ten schools now have head coaches at the conference’s bell cow programs who can go into the South and compete for players: Ryan Day (Ohio State), Jim Harbaugh (Michigan), James Franklin (Penn State), Mel Tucker (Michigan State), Fickell and Rhule. In 2024, they’ll have 2 more in Lincoln Riley (USC) and Chip Kelly (UCLA).
All things being equal with NIL — and for the most part, it is — you can’t overstate the importance of a charismatic coach when recruiting high schools and the transfer portal.
19. USC and UCLA join the Big Ten in 2024, a move that could push Ohio State and Michigan from the top of the conference.
USC has a combined 19 wins all-time vs. Ohio State and Michigan. The Trojans are 13-10-1 all-time vs. Ohio State, and 6-4 vs. Michigan.
Since 2000, USC is 14-3 (.843) vs. the Big Ten, and 143-59 vs. the Pac-12 (.707).
10. Quote to note
Nebraska coach Matt Rhule: “These guys have done everything I’ve asked them to do. They’ve gotten better and better and better, and like to play football. No one’s looking at me, no one’s complaining.”