Purdue is swinging for the fences in hiring first-time head coach Ryan Walters.

But when you swing for the fences, sometimes you pop out to the catcher.

Both possibilities are in play for a coach who is clearly one of the top young defensive minds in the game, but a curious cultural fit at Purdue.

That’s true for a couple reasons.

Walters is the first defensive coordinator to be hired as Purdue’s head coach since Leon Burtnett in 1982. Will the cradle of quarterbacks transform into the cradle of cornerbacks?

Purdue also isn’t a place where rookie head coaches cut their teeth. Burtnett was the most recent Boilermakers hire without prior head coaching experience.

Only one thing is certain with this hire — it’s going to make a division rival worse off.

Walters completely transformed the Illinois defense in his 2 seasons in Champaign. The Illini led the Big Ten in scoring defense (12.3 ppg) and total defense (263.8 ypg) this season. A year ago, Illinois was 6th (21.9 ppg) and 8th (367 ypg) in those categories, respectively.

It wasn’t a case of Illinois hitting the transfer portal hard to make it happen, either.

Virtually every key contributor was a holdover Lovie Smith recruited to the program. On top of that, the Illini were replacing their best player from last year’s defense — safety Kerby Joseph, who is having an excellent rookie season for the Detroit Lions.

None of these guys were hand-picked by Walters. Yet he was able to shave off more than 100 yards and nearly 10 points per game. Walters knows what’s up.

If he has the same defensive impact at Purdue, it will truly be historic. The Boilermakers haven’t led the Big Ten in scoring defense since 1959.

Bret Bielema isn’t going to find another coordinator of Walters’ caliber. And for that reason, at least, Purdue fans have reason to be happy.

Weakening a rival improves your own team’s chances by default.

But will Walters strengthen Purdue?

A head coaching unknown

When a Power 5 coordinator is hired as a head coach, there are typically 2 destinations: a Group of 5 school, or a struggling Power 5 program.

When former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea landed a head coaching position, it was Vanderbilt. For former Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko, Duke was the destination. Mel Tucker’s first head coaching job was at Colorado after his successful run as Georgia’s defensive coordinator.

All of those programs were in a pretty bad way when those coaches took over.

Walters himself seemed like a logical fit for his alma mater, Colorado. Alas, the Buffaloes decided to go Prime Time instead of rebuilding with a young coach.

Purdue is not your typical program for a first-time head coach. The Boilermakers just won the Big Ten West. Walters isn’t being asked to rebuild the culture, but to make it even stronger.

Rookie head coaches aren’t incapable of succeeding in these scenarios. Ryan Day had no previous head coaching experience when he replaced Urban Meyer, and now he’s 45-5 with 3 College Football Playoff appearances.

But Walters’ situation isn’t quite the same as Day’s. Day was promoted from within a program he was already familiar with. He also had a 3-game stint as Ohio State’s interim coach when Meyer was suspended early in 2018.

And, well, it’s Ohio State.

Walters has all of 2 seasons as a Big Ten coordinator. It’s impossible to know what a Ryan Walters football team will look like until we see it for the first time.

A hire that can go either way

Let’s address the elephant in the room.

When many Purdue fans look at Walters, they’ll see Darrell Hazell.

The backgrounds are similar enough: “rising star” African-American head coach with experience as a Big Ten assistant. And the Hazell years are nothing anyone at Purdue wants to relive.

For many reasons, that’s the wrong way of looking at things.

The hire that Purdue AD Mike Bobinski is clearly emulating is just a couple hours up the road in South Bend. His hope is that Walters turns out to be Purdue’s Marcus Freeman.

Freeman is the exact same age as Walters: 36. He also had no prior head coaching experience before Notre Dame promoted him to head coach following Brian Kelly’s departure to LSU.

And though Freeman’s first month as Notre Dame’s coach came with some unexpected speed bumps, the sense is still that he’s a transformational hire for the Irish.

If a program with Notre Dame’s pedigree is willing to go out on that limb, it’s certainly good enough for Purdue.

However, Walters could also end up like a pair of current Big Ten coaches: Mike Locksley and Luke Fickell. Both are successful, but not before learning the hard way in their first go-round as a head coach.

Fickell was placed in a uniquely bad situation in his full season as Ohio State’s interim head coach. But it’s pretty reasonable to think the current version of Fickell would have gone better than 6-6 and retained the job on a permanent basis. That’s the power of being able to grow as a coach at a Group of 5 program.

Locksley was a disastrous 2-26 in less than 3 seasons at New Mexico. A stint at Nick Saban’s Former Head Coach Rehabilitation Academy readied Locksley for the Maryland job.

Walters could go down that path as easily as he could wind up on Freeman’s.

Bobinski is right to believe Walters’ head coaching future is bright.

Whether that will be right away, and at Purdue, is what remains to be seen.

Photo courtesy of Purdue Athletics.