Master of Disguise: How Ryan Walters' defense will trick Purdue opponents into mistakes

INDIANAPOLIS — Minnesota coach PJ Fleck's description of Purdue coach Ryan Walters' Illinois defense sounds like an oxymoron until you look at the box score.
Last season the Illini secondary, held the Golden Gophers to 38 yards through the air on 6-of-18 passing with three interceptions.
Having talented players such as top-5 NFL draft pick Devon Witherspoon certainly helps a defense thrive, but Fleck called Walters' scheme "simply complex." Meaning before the ball is snapped the coverage looks simple enough to decipher. Once the play begins the coverage the offense thought it was getting is disguised as something else, causing the quarterback to hold onto the ball in an effort to process what he's seeing. The hesitation gives the pass rush time to get home, reducing the amount of time the secondary has to cover and increasing the defense's chances of creating a turnover.
While the exact schemes and formations Purdue's first-year coach Walters plans to implement remain a mystery, coaches around the Big Ten know that whatever the Boilermakers choose to run defensively, Walters will put his players in position to make plays.
"From the outside (the defense) doesn't look that hard," Fleck said. "You look at it, and it's a few coverages. But the way that the coverages look identical before the ball is snapped, and then it changes immediately, the depth of the free safeties, the way that the athletes coach (Bret) Bielema had at Illinois — two of the best DBs in the country — that helps with the system.
"But the system is hard enough despite who you even have playing in it, because it creates doubt. It creates different looks. And you've got to be able to make split-second decisions. And if you're not able to do that, they got you."
Purdue is breaking in two new cornerbacks in Stanford transfer Salim Turner-Muhammad and Penn State transfer Marquis Wilson, but the safeties behind them are experienced returners in seniors Sanoussi Kane and Cam Allen.
Talented safeties are key to Walters' system. In two years at Illinois, Walters had three safeties selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft. Detroit Lions safety Kerby Joseph developed into a starter as a rookie. Washington Commanders second-round pick Quan Martin and Philadelphia Eagles third-round pick Sydney Brown could contribute as early as well.
"There's no doubt that from a schematic standpoint he shows you one picture and ends up playing another," Maryland coach Mike Lockley said. "It's important for a veteran quarterback to be able to decipher what he's doing because they try to do two things on the back end that confuse you with the looks, and he has a great understanding of who they want to be on defense, and he works toward that.
"The safeties job as we all know, you're the last line of defense, but I think what they do that's really unique is the pictures they show you pre-snap and being able to get to the areas of the field that they need to get to from a responsibility standpoint. They hold their disguises and are sound in what they do. When some people disguise, they put themselves in vulnerable positions. I think the way Ryan plays defense and calls defenses; he does a really good job of being really sound but also holding those disguises long enough to put a little hint of doubt pre-snap into the quarterback's mind."
Walters' success guiding the Illinois defense helped him become a sought-after head coaching candidate. Walters credits the collaborative atmosphere in Champaign with empowering him to become the best defensive coordinator he could be. With Purdue, Walters wants to empower defensive coordinator Kevin Kane in the same way. Walters will still have his blueprint on the scheme, but he'll leave play calling duties to Kane, who comes to Purdue with Walters from Illinois.
"Kevin is our defensive coordinator so he'll call the plays," Walters said. "In order for me to do my job the most efficient and effective way I possibly can, I can't micromanage. I've got to delegate responsibilities, and Kevin's gonna do a great job.
"I was awarded the platform to be a coordinator and run that side of the ball to ultimately result in this opportunity. I gotta give Kevin that same platform and that same opportunity."
When playing a deceptive style of defense every player needs to be on the same page. Lucky for the Purdue defenders, Sanoussi Kane and Allen love to talk and have evolved into the vocal leaders of the secondary. Kane said communication will be key to improving a pass defense that ranked fifth worst in the Big Ten in pass yards allowed per game. If all eleven players are communicating and playing at a fast pace, the game should slow down and allow the defense to make plays.
"Miscommunication can definitely lead to a big play," Sanoussi Kane said. "There's a saying in football, 'If everyone is wrong, then everyone is right.' So, it doesn't matter what the communication is, as long as all of us are on the same page, we're gonna be good."

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