Odom to face protege in return to Mizzou
When Barry Odom got the offer to return to his alma mater, his boss at the time, Justin Fuente, didn’t bother trying to convince him to stay at Memphis. Odom had played at Missouri from 1996-99 and spent nine years in various positions on the Tiger staff before coming to Memphis in 2012. So as soon as Gary Pinkel asked him to replace Dave Steckel as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator following the 2014 season, it felt like a no-brainer.
According to North Texas athletics director Wren Baker, who worked in Memphis’ athletics department from 2013-2015, Fuente made a request of Odom before he left. Fuente, now the head coach at Virginia Tech, asked him not to take a young safeties coach with him. That probably didn’t seem like much to ask — after all, an SEC school could probably attract someone more qualified than a 28-year-old who had spent just three seasons as a position coach.
But Odom didn’t want to part with the assistant, who he’d had his eye on since the two first met in 2010 and finally hired prior to that season. The coach: Ryan Walters. Odom offered him a position coaching safeties at Missouri. Walters accepted.
“(Odom) knew Ryan was really good, and I think he called Justin and told him he needed to have him on his staff,” Baker recalled. “I know that coach Fuente wasn’t real pleased to lose him.”
Like for Odom, the decision to leave Memphis for Missouri wasn’t a difficult one for Walters. He didn’t have the same ties to the Tiger program, but the challenge of coaching in the SEC appealed to him — as did an SEC paycheck.
“I wanted to coach in the SEC, to be a part of this conference,” Walters said. “It’s big-time ball, and I had a lot of respect for Gary Pinkel. Playing against him at Colorado, I wanted to learn from him, and Missouri had just come off of the SEC East championship and I heard a lot of good things about Columbia, so I thought it was a great opportunity.” He paused, then grinned. “And the pay was more.”
Fast forward five years, and the pay is even greater for Walters, now in his third season as Missouri’s defensive coordinator. More than anyone else, he has Odom to thank for that.
After a breakout 2019 campaign that saw the Tigers rank 14th nationally in total defense and sixth against the pass, first-year head coach Eli Drinkwitz kept Walters on staff. Following a few hiccups early in the schedule, his defense is back to looking like the unit that dominated for much of 2019, holding Missouri’s last two opponents to 10 total points.
Saturday, when Odom returns to Faurot Field as Arkansas’ defensive coordinator, Walters will find himself opposite the man who hired him at Memphis, brought him to Missouri, promoted him to defensive coordinator and helped him construct his current unit. Of all the Tiger players, coaches and administrators Odom will see for the first time since being fired a year ago, none have spent as much time with him as Walters.
“I don’t take that for granted at all,” Walters said of Odom. “He gave me my first opportunity to coach in the SEC as a safeties coach coming back under Pinkel’s staff, and then he gave me an opportunity to call plays. Man, I’ll never forget that, and I’ll always be appreciative of that.”
When Odom accepted Pinkel’s invitation to serve as defensive coordinator and brought Walters with him to Missouri, neither could have envisioned how the following year would unfold. Their unit was stellar. Captained by Kentrell Brothers, who led the nation in tackles, the defense ranked sixth nationally in total defense and fifth in scoring. But just about everything else went wrong for the Tigers. The team finished 5-7, players threatened to boycott a game and Pinkel announced his retirement due to a lymphoma diagnosis.
Athletics director Mack Rhoades, who would bolt for Baylor a few months later, settled on Odom as Pinkel’s replacement. Initially, Odom didn’t plan to take an everyday role in directing Missouri’s defense while serving as head coach. That helped him lure former Tiger safety DeMontie Cross, then a co-defensive coordinator for TCU, back to Columbia to serve as defensive coordinator.
That hire proved disastrous. The Tigers regressed sharply on the defensive side of the ball in 2016, and just two games into the following season, Odom relieved Cross of his duties.
After Cross’ firing, Odom took on a larger role within the defense, but he didn’t appoint himself signal-caller, giving that role to Walters. He then promoted Walters to full-time defensive coordinator after the season.
Missouri improved its rushing defense, total defense and scoring defense from 2017 to 2018, allowing 6.7 fewer points per game. Former Tiger linebacker Cale Garrett attributed the success more to the strong sense of identity instilled by Walters than any schematic change. As the unit experienced more success, Garrett — who acknowledged that he wasn’t involved in staff meetings, even though he tried to get in — said Odom seemed to give Walters increasing autonomy.
“Odom was more involved from the beginning until, I think, really, once he hired coach Walters it seemed progressively like he knew he could count on coach Walters to handle our side of the ball, and it seemed like there was a great amount of trust between those two guys,” Garrett said.
Even though his unit improved in 2018, Walters wasn’t afraid to make schematic tweaks to better fit his personnel. He swapped the strongside linebacker in the team’s base formation out for an additional safety, creating a 4-2-5 package rather than a traditional 4-3. That helped a pass defense that had ranked No. 112 in the country in 2018 leap all the way into the top 10. Then, this offseason, Walters adapted his defensive front, shifting to three down linemen: a nose tackle and two defensive ends that generally line up in a 4i technique, on the inside shoulder of the offensive tackles. At one end of the line, an edge rusher last year would have his hand in the dirt lines up as a BUCK linebacker.
“We kind of change our scheme to fit the players we have in the program, so I feel like that’s probably the biggest thing,” linebacker Nick Bolton said when asked how he’s seen the defense evolve during his three years on campus. “(Walters) implemented a new scheme last season and it’s worked out for us.”
As a result, Missouri’s defense is playing its best football of the season. The Tigers currently rank among the top 40 teams nationally in rushing defense, total defense and scoring defense. The unit is also Walters’ own. He acknowledged that Odom’s influence can still be seen in some of his philosophies and play calls, but his scheme doesn’t bear much similarity to his former boss’ unit at Missouri in 2015 or his current one at Arkansas.
“There’s some semblances of what we did at Memphis, not a whole lot of what we did when he first got back to Missouri, and then obviously last year kind of evolved to where we are now,” Walters said of Mizzou’s defense. “So there’s definitely things I’ve learned from him and taken away from him. He obviously does a great job as a coordinator and was a great coach, and I’ve definitely learned a lot from him, just about how to see the game, how to study the game, and then I think we have similar aggressive styles. But as far as the schematic similarities right now, I don’t think there’s as many as probably people would perceive or think there would be on the outside.”
Arkansas’ statistical numbers may not look quite as good as Missouri’s, but Odom’s coaching job this season might be even more impressive. Prior to the arrival of him and head coach Sam Pittman, Arkansas had lost 19 consecutive games against SEC opponents. Its defense allowed 36.8 points per game last season, worst among all Power Five teams. Yet with a base defense that features three down linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs in its base package and typically drops eight players in coverage on third downs, Odom’s unit has proven adept at generating turnovers, which have keyed all three Razorback wins this season.
Since hiring Odom, Arkansas has improved in virtually every statistical defensive category, including jumping from No. 122 nationally against the run to No. 76; from No. 124 in scoring to No. 76; from No. 98 to No. 50 in red zone touchdown percentage and from 113th to tied for second in interceptions.
“They are playing really well on that side of the ball and forcing a bunch of turnovers, and I’m not surprised,” Walters said. “He’s a great coach, and he’s a huge asset for coach Pittman and Arkansas. So I’m not shocked at all.”
Odom and Walters won’t exactly be matching wits Saturday. Walters pointed out that his focus is on the Arkansas offense; he’s hardly watched Odom’s unit this season. But that’s not to say the two won’t have a role in game-planning for one another. Drinkwitz acknowledged that he asked Walters and the other defensive assistants who worked under Odom, Brick Haley and David Gibbs, for insight on how Odom operates. Odom has likely been involved even further for Arkansas, as he should have a pretty firm grasp of the strengths and weaknesses of Missouri’s personnel, most of whom he coached or recruited.
“I do think that there's some things that, obviously, the defensive staff has been able to give us as far as scouting report, maybe the type of defensive coordinator, play-caller that (Odom) is or what's his go-to,” Drinkwitz said. “Is he a pressure guy in the red area? Is he a zone guy on third downs? Is he more attacking or aggressive, laid back? What are some things that gave them problems? No different than I'm sure Coach Odom is telling the Arkansas staff.”
Arkansas didn’t make Odom available for interviews this week. Walters said he hasn’t talked to his former boss leading up to the game, and he doesn’t plan to until Saturday. Ultimately, he reiterated Drinkwitz’s line that it’s a players’ game, and whichever team’s players executes better will win.
But despite statements like that, and no matter how friendly the two may be, make no mistake about it: Both Odom and Walters want to win Saturday, probably more badly than ever. The one word that came up repeatedly to describe both coordinators was competitive. For Walters, this game represents perhaps his best chance yet to prove that Missouri’s defensive success should be credited more to him than Odom. Odom, of course, will have the opportunity to show the school that fired him what he’s capable of. Pivotal to the outcome will be which defense, Odom’s or that of his protege, can find more success generating turnovers and slowing down the opposing attack
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