Ryan Walters watched it all unfold from far away.
For the first time in his tenure at Missouri, the Tigers’ current defensive coordinator directed schemes from the coaching booth atop Wyoming’s War Memorial Stadium.
It was a change for Walters, who’d been on the sideline for games at every turn since coming to Columbia in 2015.
The events that transpired in Laramie on the last day of August clearly weren’t what anyone around MU was hoping for, and Walters hasn’t been in the box for a game since. He’s been in the middle of sideline discussions and reading the pulse of his players.
More than a month after the flight back to mid-Missouri, the Tigers have won three games in convincing fashion — giving up only 21 points in September.
At the forefront of those performances was Missouri’s defense creating takeaways and scoring points. Maybe most importantly, it’s been Walters’ down-by-down schemes that have put the Tigers on the path of success.
While players and other coaches can claim a lot of the responsibility for the resurgence, Walters stayed locked in and made necessary tweaks. He’s the last filter for the MU defense. If anything gets by Walters, opponents can capitalize.
But not much has gotten by him the past few weeks.
“There’s no magic formula, nothing like that,” Walters said. “It’s just effort, attitude and making plays when you're supposed to be there.”
Walters’ confidence has grown in line with the progression of the Tigers’ defense under fourth-year head coach Barry Odom.
The defense had a turbulent start to Odom’s tenure, not living up to its potential in 2016. It may have gone from bad to worse with the firing of then-defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross two games into the 2017 season after Missouri gave up 43 points to FCS-level Missouri State, then fell at home to South Carolina.
Before the end of his second season as head coach, Odom turned over defensive play-calling duties to Walters, the Tigers' secondary coach and co-defensive coordinator at the time.
The promotion to defensive coordinator came after the end of that regular season and Missouri’s appearance in the Texas Bowl.
“He’s mature beyond his years, he understands, he also works well with his staff on working together on gaining ideas and putting it in and how it fits to us,” Odom said of Walters. “He’s a brilliant football mind, and I see more confidence in the way that he puts together a game plan. He’s got a really good feel for what this team is and what we need to do defensively.”
Maturity has been one quality brought up consistently about the 33-year-old Walters. It’s one predominant trait as to why the Los Angeles native was named a team captain for his senior season at Colorado in 2008.
“It was not an easy time for Colorado, it was not an easy time for (Walters) or me ... not having the kind of success we all wanted,” said Dan Hawkins, Colorado’s head coach from 2006-10. The Buffaloes had a 19-39 record with Hawkins in charge. “But I was always super impressed with how classy (Walters) was, what a good leader he was, how he handled the transition, all of that. He couldn't have been classier."
Hawkins routinely noticed that Walters understood the grand ideas of what his coaches were trying to accomplish.
So after Walters expressed an interest in coaching, Hawkins brought him onto his staff for the 2009 season as a quality control assistant.
Hawkins believed Walters wouldn’t have much trouble being just as influential with his pads and helmet off as when he was playing.
“He knew the game plan, he knew the other team, he knew what we were trying to do, why we were trying to do it,” Hawkins said of Walters.
From 2010-15, Walters bounced around the country trying to find stability in the coaching profession.
Stops at Arizona, Oklahoma, North Texas and Memphis allowed Walters to work with dozens of different coaches and hundreds of athletes. Walters was Arizona’s defensive backs coach in 2011 when he first met Odom.
The two didn’t coach together until 2014 on the Memphis staff. They haven’t been apart since.
“I’ve obviously learned a great deal from him and he's given me a tremendous opportunity as far as career advancement,” Walters said of Odom.
What Odom has poured into Walters, the MU defensive coordinator isn’t only using for his gain. He has passed down as much knowledge as possible to his players.
“Really his play-calling is on an elite level,” Missouri defensive lineman Jordan Elliott said of Walters. “When he sees formations and things like that, he is always spot-on. We have a lot of calls, but at the same time you can kind of compartmentalize them and put them together, but a lot of the plays are the same thing. It's easy for us to get the calls in, and fast. He knows everything in his head. That's how simple it is, but effective.”
Even though he's not too far removed from his playing career, Walters believes the athletes he coaches now are more capable than he was at their age. He said they also have more on their plates.
Missouri defenders have thrived with their significant responsibility under Walters this year. The Tigers already have four defensive touchdowns this season. The program record, set in 2008, is six. They also have five interceptions, the halfway mark to their total of 10 from a year ago.
“He's pushing us a lot,” MU safety Tyree Gillespie said of Walters. “He has stepped up his role a lot. He's talking to us and we have family time and he is really starting to help us learn and stuff like that."
Missouri ranks third in the FBS this season in yards allowed per play and total defense.
As more people take notice of the Tigers' improvements, Walters is likely in store for more attention. He fits the role of a young, promising and relatable leader.
That attention won’t be fixated on just his football success, but how he acts in every facet of life.
In March 2016, Walters’ wife, Tara, was scheduled early in the morning to have her labor induced. Under Odom’s orders, Walters skipped a spring practice session to be at the hospital for the entire process — but he brought his iPad so he could watch practice and send in his feedback.
Later that afternoon, Ryan and Tara welcomed their second son, Cason, into the world.
Walters returned to practice soon after and was back into his normal routine without hesitation.
“I think everybody that's in this profession wants to grow from year to year. I feel that I’ve grown and I‘ve grown because of the people that I've been around because of their support and what they bring to the table,” Walters said.
Walters could draw comparisons to Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay or former Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Cowher because of age, success and potential.
But Walters is most focused on the Tigers' game plan to defeat Troy on Saturday.
“Who knows, this is a wacky profession. ... Could he do it? He sure could. (Walters) could be a head coach. Whether he wants to is another story,” Hawkins said.
Just like advancing from player to coach and assistant coach to defensive coordinator, it would be another transition for Walters.
But there's no reason to think he wouldn't thrive.
“I’ve always enjoyed the Xs and Os of it. For whatever reason, it came easy to me, and because of that I kind of gravitated toward it,” Walters said. “As a player, I was the guy that was always in the coach’s office asking questions about the game plan, and I took it personal when we had a mental error on the field. I felt like it was my fault.
“So I think that kind of carries over into my approach coaching now, for sure.”
That’s the mantra those who know Walters best have come to expect from him. After the loss to Wyoming, he was humble enough to recognize immediate change was needed, but confident in his skills to carry out fixing the mistakes.
Walters has unleashed his potential from the sideline to the benefit of the defense and the entire Missouri program. He hasn’t forgotten what transpired in Laramie, but don’t think he’ll get fooled twice about being so far from the action.
“It’s not happening again," he said.