Illinois’ defense might’ve been one of the most underrated units in the B1G last year.

Overlooked because of the team’s 5-7 record, the Fighting Illini showed significant improvement in 2021 from the previous regime. Illinois ranked sixth in the B1G in scoring defense (21.9 points per game) and eighth in yards allowed (367 yards per game). Those were the best averages for the defense since 2015.

The mastermind behind Illinois’ defensive growth was Ryan Walters, who didn’t receive nearly the recognition he deserved. And after such a successful 2021 season, he could’ve likely taken a job somewhere else.

Walters stayed.

“I feel like this situation is set up for growth. That was one of the reasons I came in the first place,” Walters said. “I learned a ton from Coach (Bielema), just how to think about the game. And then our defensive staff, we challenge each other every day. I think we get better every day because of the guys in that room.

“The grass ain’t greener all the time. This is pretty fertile ground for me personally. And I think we have a chance to be pretty good next year.

Walters also said the commitment from Illinois was “humbling” and played a big role in his decision to return, as well.

Illinois finished the first year of the Bret Bielema era with a 5-7 record, which included a pair of road wins over then-ranked opponents (Penn State and Minnesota). The Illini also defeated Northwestern for the first time since 2014 to end the year.