Football Coaching Staff Hires - The Coordinators

Steve Sturm, Football Writer

Courtesy Illinois Football

Tony Petersen - Offensive Coordinator

Brett Bielema needed to make a big first hire with his offensive coordinator selection and I'd say he did a pretty good job. Tony Petersen has been largely successful as a play caller and has a history in the B1G which should be valuable.

Petersen was a talented baseball player as well as a quarterback in college. He was drafted in the 16th round by the Royals in 1986 as he left junior college. He continued to pitch at Marshall but never pursued a pro baseball career after that. Petersen broke in as a grad assistant at Kentucky before returning to Marshall to coach every skill position between 1991 and 1997 before gaining a promotion to offensive coordinator in 1998. He soon moved to Minnesota and was essentially in charge of the passing game at Minnesota until 2006, when head coach Glen Mason was fired. Petersen spent four more years as a position coach at Iowa State, South Dakota and Marshall before he got another shot as a coordinator at Louisiana Tech in 2013.  However, his shot didn't last long because head coach Skip Holtz took the play calling duties back from Petersen soon after hiring him. One can hardly blame Holtz, because Louisiana Tech's offense leveled up and they had a successful season. Petersen then moved on to East Carolina in 2016 and did a fine job as the primary play caller. East Carolina's offense was 23rd, 42nd and 57th in the nation in Petersen's three years there. ECU fired its entire staff after 2018. Following a year as an "offensive analyst" at Missouri, Petersen moved on to Appalachian State last year and did a very good job.  Appalachian State was 26th in yards per game this year, which is an improvement from their previous ranking of 39th.  Again, Petersen switched his focus and ran the ball about as much as a Rod Smith offense would.  It was a different sort of offense, of course, but it was a distinctly run-heavy scheme that he inherited as he essentially switched places with Eli Drinkwitz.

These are clips of Appalachian State's games from last year.  Notice how everything depends on the defense honoring the run between the tackles. The Mountaineers don't necessarily run the ball between the tackles very often, but by lining up with an offset hback and a tailback on every play, they can keep the linebackers in the box and then create an advantage for off tackle plays.  Runs up the middle are still a part of the offense, but the big plays you'll see in these highlights are all on the edge.  They don't throw down the middle very often either, but that is also a function of forcing the defense's linebackers and safeties to honor the run.  When App State does throw between the hashes, they throw over the top and only if there's single coverage.  Then, when you can see Arkansas State bleed out to the edges on third and long, Petersen called a quarterback draw and Zac Thomas walked into the end zone from 60 yards away.

Compare that to East Carolina's offense under Petersen.  You can see ECU throwing the ball all over the field.  ECU threw for at least 3,400 yards in each of Petersen's three years there, and also threw at least 12 interceptions. Petersen didn't run the ball very often and he didn't run it very effectively. However, for those Illini fans who want a return to the Mike White era, these highlights are just what you should want to see.
Going forward, its anybody's guess what Illinois is planning to run, because Petersen has commanded a run-heavy scheme as well as a pass-heavy scheme.  Brandon Peters announced his return soon after the hire, so its clear that he will have the inside track to be the starter.  Though he's taller and more athletic, he brings a similar skillset to Appalachian State starter Zac Thomas, so the smart money is on a scheme more similar to Appalachian State's than East Carolina's.  The Appalachian State offense is also more similar to the scheme that Bielema ran at Arkansas and Wisconsin, though Bielema said in his initial media availability that he did not intend to run the same power offense that Wisconsin ran in his time there.  That translates to at least 18 passes per game and a handful of designed quarterback runs but primary reliance on a stable of running backs who each bring a little something different to the table.  That would also be more similar to Illinois' most recent offense under Rod Smith, so the personnel are already in place.  Illinois may have provided another hint at its intentions when it added Arkansas and East Carolina transfer Chase Hayden as a transfer.  Hayden brings more of a power rushing game to complement Epstein and Brown's quickness.

Ryan Walters - Defensive Coordinator

Like Tony Petersen, Ryan Walters has a history of switching schemes to fit his personnel, which should be music to the ears of Illinois fans who watched Lovie Smith force square pegs into round holes for the first two years of his tenure. Walters emphasized in his first media availability that he believes the scheme has to fit the roster rather than the other way around.  He showed that versatility last year when Missouri switched to primarily a 3-4 defense from a 4-2-5 stunt front.  Missouri fans were largely upset with the change, and its hard to be too excited about the results in hindsight.  However, Missouri didn't actually give up as many points as Mizzou fans seem to think given their complaints.  Missouri gave up 406.9 yards per game and 32.3 points per game.  Those totals are good for 8th in the SEC in yards and 9th in the SEC in points.  In 2019, Missouri was 3rd in the SEC in yards allowed and 6th in points allowed.  In 2018, Missouri was 10th and 8th in the SEC, respectively.  Its possible that Missouri fans had unrealistic expectations for their defense in 2020.  Not to mention the fact that Missouri had to play a 10 game SEC-only schedule and had some personnel losses due to Covid.

Looking further into Walters' background should give Illini fans even more enthusiasm.  Walters started his coaching career as soon as his playing career at Colorado ended.  He was a graduate assistant at Colorado and Arizona and then served as a full-time assistant coaching the secondary at Arizona, North Texas, and Memphis with a stop as a graduate assistant at Oklahoma in between.  Walters followed Barry Odom from Memphis to Missouri in 2015 and was promoted to co-defensive coordinator the next year.  He was promoted to full-time defensive coordinator in 2018 at the age of 32, which solidified him as a head coaching candidate in the future.  Walters interviewed for the Colorado job after 2019 but according to Gabe DeArmond (Sturdy for 30, episode 7), it was more of a courtesy interview.
Walters implemented a 3-4 defense last year as Missouri, but he had a set of 290 to 300 pound linemen not to mention several 260 pound hybrid linebacker/ defensive end types. Illinois' depth chart is fairly thin all along the front seven right now and it is unclear who among the seniors will be back.  Even if Rod Perry and Isaiah Gay return, Illinois would benefit from reinforcements from the late signing period and the transfer market to capably run a 3-4. The addition of Josh Hart from North Carolina State was a good start as he should fit as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 and Illinois is involved with several other potential transfers which could fill in the gaps. Missouri blitzed in the middle of the field very often and appeared to keep its linebackers and safeties in the middle as well.  You'll notice that the large bulk of the big plays that Missouri gives up are passing plays near the sidelines.  Those plays are a lot more difficult to execute in the wintery conditions of the Big Ten.
So what does this mean for Illinois defense in the future?  That's hard to say at the moment.  Walters is an experienced and steady hand to run the defense, and his expertise in the secondary will mesh nicely with Bret Bielema's expertise in the front seven.  Bielema had indicated that he prefers a 3-4 scheme in his initial media availability but beyond that Illinois fans can only guess what that will mean for the near future. The safe money is that Illinois will use at least a few of their undersized defensive ends such as Gay and Coleman as stand-up rush linebackers on the weak side at least in the short term, which would be reminiscent of Vic Koenning's defense from the not too distant past.

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