It’s been a solid year on the gridiron for Illinois. With a win over Northwestern in its regular-season finale Saturday, the Illini would pick up their 8th win. It would be their best season since 2007.

You can point to several factors for the Illini’s quick rise. But none more deserving than the work of the Illinois defense and 2nd-year coordinator Ryan Walters.

Walters, just 36 years old, is a rising star in the coaching ranks. His defense ranks in the top 10 in 17 major categories. His unit plays with purpose and a ton of passion. In a league filled with defensive stalwarts, the Illini have more than their fair share. Walters and his staff have coached them up to a new level of success.

Fast climb

Walters was a standout safety during the mid-2000s at Colorado. He served as a student assistant with the Buffs in 2009, working with the safeties.

He enjoyed stints at Arizona (2010-12), Oklahoma (2013), North Texas (2013), Memphis (2014) and Missouri (2015-20) before coming to Champaign a year ago as defensive coordinator. He’s 1 of 15 semifinalists for the Frank Broyles Award given to the top assistant coach in the country. It’s the 2nd consecutive year Walters has been a semifinalist. The award will be presented Dec. 6 in Little Rock.

Illinois quick ascent up the charts defensively isn’t an accident. A group that finished 8th in total defense in the B1G a year ago now sits 2nd in the league in points (13.1) and yards (258.6) allowed per game. And those numbers rank 3rd and 6th nationally.

Big-time players

How about name recognition? You got it.

Let’s start with Devon Witherspoon. Witherspoon is 1 of 2 Illini defenders named a Bednarik Award semifinalist. The other is defensive tackle Jer’Zhan Newton. Only Alabama has 2 defenders also on the list.

Witherspoon, the junior corner from Pensacola, Florida, is 1 of 12 finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award given to the nation’s top defensive back. He’s been a lockdown corner in Walters’ system all year and is the No. 1 graded CB in the country according to PFF (90.8).

Witherspoon, along with Sydney Brown, Kendall Smith and Jartavius Martin, has solidified the secondary. Both Smith and Brown have 4 picks on the year.

Newton and Seth Coleman have helped anchor the defensive front and apply pressure on opposing QBs. Their 83 combined pressures is 1st in the B1G according to PFF.

The unit was so dominant early on, it didn’t allow a single TD in nonconference play, the 1st time that’s occurred since 1921.

They’ve also been terrific in 4th quarters, allowing just 26 points on the year, with 19 of those coming in the past 2 games against Purdue and Michigan.

How are they doing it?

The Illini start by shutting down the run. They give up just a bit over 93 yards per game. Teams become 1-dimensional. Against this secondary, that’s a bad thing.

Illinois ranks 1st in the nation in pass efficiency defense and 2nd in interceptions. With Witherspoon locking down 1 side of the field and Brown, Martin and Smith roaming elsewhere, there’s little room to find open receivers.

Walters puts a lot of guys near the line of scrimmage. Creases and running lanes are hard to to come by. He trusts his back end in man coverage and to play physical. So far, you can’t argue with the results.

They’re 6th in the nation in takeaways with 24. Eight Illini have an INT. They’re not only fundamentally sound under Walters, but also opportunistic.

Head coach sooner than later

It’s no secret Walters has career goals and aspirations of becoming a head coach. He’s putting together quite the resume under the tutelage of Bret Bielema.

“One of the reasons I came here — it’s not a secret — I have career aspirations and goals,” Walters said. “One of the more attractive things about this opportunity was Coach Bret’s history with his coaching tree. He’s had a lot of defensive coordinators on his staff get head (coaching) jobs.”

With the way his unit’s performing, Walters’ stock continues to rise. As more jobs come open in the next week or 2, don’t be shocked to see his name linked to several.

Bielema has nothing but praise for his 2nd-year DC. He knows his time in Champaign is likely short. But for all the right reasons.

“When I came here, after being around Ryan for a short amount of time, I knew he would get a head coaching job,” Bielema told reporters recently. “It’s just a matter of when.”