Purdue football: Not the safest pick, but Ryan Walters can succeed for the Boilermakers
Ryan Walters is not the safe pick for Purdue.
He’s young — only 36 years old, the 4th-youngest head coach in all of college football — has been a defensive coordinator for just 5 seasons and doesn’t have head-coaching experience. And he’s jumping into a big-time challenge at Purdue, a program that has largely built its successful eras on strong quarterback play and high-scoring offenses.
The next chapter of 𝐏𝐮𝐫𝐝𝐮𝐞 𝐅𝐨𝐨𝐭𝐛𝐚𝐥𝐥 is here. @Coach_Walters, 𝐁𝐎𝐈𝐋𝐄𝐑 𝐔𝐏!
— Purdue Football (@BoilerFootball) December 13, 2022
He doesn’t fit the prototypical mold. It makes Walters, the defensive coordinator at Illinois for the past 2 seasons and at Missouri for the 3 before that, a risky selection as the new coach of the Boilermakers. He takes over at the end of a 2-year run led by Jeff Brohm that is the best stretch for Purdue in the last 25 years.
But it might be the kind of outside-the-box thinking that will keep the Boilermakers relevant for years to come in an ever-changing NCAA landscape. There’s a lot to like. Clearly, Walters is a great defensive mind, evidenced by what he did at Illinois in his short time there, turning the Fighting Illini from a defensive dumpster fire into arguably the best unit in the Big Ten, if not the entire country. The numbers speak for themselves: Illinois ranked No. 1 in the country in points allowed, giving up 12.3 per game. And the Fighting Illini gave Michigan’s offense fits last month, allowing only 19 points to an undefeated Wolverines team that scored 45 in a victory at Ohio State a week later. The year before Walters took over, the Illini gave up nearly 35 points per game, ranking them among the worst in the country.
Historically, Purdue hasn’t won based on its defense. Yes, there’ve been stretches, like Leon Burtnett’s “Junk Defense” of the late 70s and early 80s and Brock Spack’s unit during the first half of the Joe Tiller Era during the late 90s and early 00s, plus a few seasons during Brohm’s tenure. But when the Boilermakers have enjoyed their greatest successes, it frequently has been because their quarterbacks excelled and they pushed the envelope offensively. Under Tiller, that was “basketball on grass” with Drew Brees and Kyle Orton, a pass-first scheme that was relatively new to the Big Ten. Under Brohm, it was a vertical passing game, with big-time receivers like Rondale Moore and David Bell pressing opposing defenses.
That’s where Walters will have to prove himself. He’ll likely need to hire a strong, experienced offensive coordinator with a résumé that fits what the Boilermakers have done in the past, then continue to recruit players who can play to that style.
He just might be equipped to do so.
With the recent rapid-fire changes in the NCAA, perhaps it’s best to have a young coach who understands and is willing to adapt to the changing landscape. The most successful coaches in football in 2023 and beyond might need to speak fluently in NIL, if you will, to try to best retain players on their own roster. And they’ll have to hit the transfer portal hard, attracting veteran players who can fit their systems. Walters, the 247sports Defensive Coordinator of the Year last season, was a big part of that in Bret Bielema’s quick turnaround in Champaign.
Walters does come with questions, as any coach limited on experience would, but there’s a ton of potential here, too. And if Purdue is to take another step forward, maybe it was time to take a risk. Look, the Big Ten West title is nice, and marks a significant improvement from where the Boilermakers were only 6 years ago. But there’s room for more.
Maybe Walters can help the program grow as he grows. He’s been given the chance.