There’s a commanding presence that Steve Wilks evokes when he walks into a room. With over 25 years experience in coaching football — over half of which came in the NFL — it’s easy to see why.
So when the Missouri Tigers defensive coordinator speaks, players listen. After all, there aren’t many prior NFL head coaches, as Wilks was with the Arizona Cardinals in 2018, on college staffs.
“When I first got here, I was kind of scared for (the) playbook that Coach Wilks put out for us,” Tulsa transfer cornerback Allie Green IV said Thursday during the Tigers’ media day. “The terms and stuff .... was NFL terms. I seen it as preparation after I actually caught onto it ... I started studying more and stuff like that, then I started understanding how smart he was.”
That playbook is likely going to feature a 4-2-5 scheme — which Wilks and coach Eliah Drinkwitz have both expressed interest in running — that is a radical change from outgoing coordinator Ryan Walters’ style, who left to take the same position at Illinois. Under Walters last season, man coverage and three linebacker sets were the name of the game, where players like linebacker Nick Bolton (a second-round NFL Draft pick by the Chiefs) thrived as units like the pass defense (245.8 yards allowed per game, 81st nationally) did not.
The change starts in the trenches, likely the most experienced group on the Tigers’ roster. Grad student Kobie Whiteside said Thursday he felt “great” from MCL surgery in January, while redshirt junior Trajan Jeffcoat is a returning first-team All-SEC player. Defensive line coach Jethro Franklin — a longtime NFL and college line coach — was a new hire to replace the outgoing Brick Haley, with both Whiteside and Jeffcoat saying Franklin wants the defensive line to establish itself as a presence.
“Just emphasizing the fact that we got to attack as a front,” Jeffcoat said. “Coach Franklin definitely brought that to us and basically teaching us the group fundamentals that it takes because, of course, he comes from the NFL and he can teach us great wisdom. ... It’s definitely heartfelt to us because we learn a lot about things we didn’t know. It’s definitely such a great mental factor for all of us.”
Linebacker is the most drastic change. Bolton’s middle linebacker role was a key cog in the Tigers’ defensive gameplan, with the current Chief flying around the open field for tackles and disruption. In a two-back system, there’s no such thing as a middle linebacker, only strong- and weak-side, and tactical miscues could leave MU exposed to the run.
The good news for the Tigers is that the duo expected to start at linebacker brings loads of experience and talent. Rice graduate transfer Blaze Alldredge was a two-time All-Conference USA selection, while junior Devin Nicholson started every game alongside Bolton last season.
“When you switch to a linebacker-down system, the important thing is knowing where the safety help is coming from and the run fits,” Alldredge said. “I think Coach Wilks does a really great job of keeping things consistent and simple in the system where you don’t have to think too much. Two linebackers is pretty easily matched against one (running) back, which is primarily what you go against in college football.”
A dropped linebacker means an addition in another spot, and in Wilks’ scheme that means an extra cornerback on the field. It also means a bigger emphasis on zone rather than man-to-man coverage, which demands a greater responsibility from the secondary to anticipate routes and cause turmoil in the passing game.
How successful that turns out to be will depend heavily on how quickly Green and Akayleb Evans, who each transferred from Tulsa within days of each other, adapt to their surroundings. Same goes for some of the main returners in the secondary, such as junior Martez Manuel and sophomore Ennis Rakestraw.
“There’s athletes everywhere, so what’s going to separate you?” Evans said about the secondary. “And that’s kind of what Allie and I have been trying to implement here, and letting guys know that yeah, we all have the skill set, but if we don’t put it all together and work toward a common goal and have a mindset to dominate no matter who it is, that’s what’s needed. That’s the big thing we’re trying to do here. I think it’s working.”
If the players themselves can’t get it to work, Wilks is certainly going to try.
Just ask Green, who got acclimated to Wilks’ style of thinking quickly.
“After meetings when I first got here, I used to just stand by the door,” Green said. “He’ll call on me on purpose … I wasn’t even asking him to come here, he just knows. He’ll stop and talk to me and stuff and break it down to me and have those conversations with me to let me know like, keep working at it. You’re going to get it, and boom, boom, boom, here’s some more points to help you understand it more. That’s what I really appreciated.”