CHAMPAIGN — During Ryan Walters' first stint as a defensive coordinator at Missouri, he spent nearly every game on the sideline. This year, his first at Illinois, he tried something new and made calls from the press box.
But after three games from up above, Walters returned to the field against Maryland last week and plans to stay there for the rest of the season.
He just feels more comfortable when he's right in the heart of the action.
"It's obviously a lot easier to communicate in person with everybody, not just your position group," Walters said Monday. "For me, just the feel of the game, you can feel the ebbs and flows and momentum changes (on the sideline), whereas in the box sometimes you can't. I felt like I was back to my comfort zone as a play caller."
Walters' new vantage point helped the Illini turn in their best defensive effort of the season against the Terrapins, who still managed to escape with a 20-17 victory. Maryland's 20 points, though, were a season-low for an Illinois opponent and a clear turnaround from previous losses to UTSA and Virginia in which the Roadrunners and Cavaliers scored 37 and 42 points, respectively.
The Illini still had some defensive breakdowns that opened the door for the Terrapins' late rally, but Maryland was just 2-of-10 on third downs.
"I thought we played hard. I felt like what we were doing from a communication standpoint, pre-snap and in between series (was better)," Walters said. "I thought we played physical at times. The amount of mental errors were way down after grading the tape. I thought we fought hard all the way through and just didn't make enough plays at the end to win the game and close it out. Definitely think it's something we can build off of."
Illinois forced and recovered two third-quarter fumbles, the first one stopping Maryland in the red zone. Third-year defensive lineman Johnny Newton was involved in the second turnover, holding up Terrapins running back Peny Boone while Illini linebacker Seth Coleman ripped the ball out.
Newton thinks Walters' presence on the sideline raised the level of the entire defense. Plus, it allowed him and other players to see Walters, who is often mild-mannered and soft-spoken in interviews, display his emotions in their purest form.
"Coach Walters, he was jumping up and down. I saw him, he was really happy (about the turnover)," Newton said Wednesday. "But bringing him down really helped a lot with the play calls. Just keeping us level-headed and helping us maintain everything."
Sixth-year linebacker Jake Hansen agreed with Newton and added that the defense is "getting quicker calls" with Walters in closer proximity.
Illinois coach Bret Bielema said he doesn't mind where his assistants work from as long as they do what's best for them and the team. However, he was leaning toward having Walters give it a go from the ground when Walters actually beat him to the punch about making the switch.
Bielema's only hiccup with Walters accompanying him on the sideline last week was figuring out their positioning.
"At first I kept running into him. He kind of likes to stand right where I like to stand, so I had to get that adjusted," Bielema said Monday, cracking a smile. " ... He's actually a completely different person than when he's in these press conferences. When he goes in the stadium, it kind of jumped out to me, and I didn't even really realize it until I was with him in some practices and the more I was around him. He's a very confident person. He has very good communication skills. I could tell it and sense it right away with our players in the first half and then throughout the game.
" ... The good news is that's his first game on the field so hopefully things are only going to get better."