Boom, goes the dynamite.
As first reported by Jeremy Werner of 247Sports, Bret Bielema has promoted secondary coach Aaron Henry to defensive coordinator.
Henry replaces Ryan Walters, who departed earlier in the week to take the head coaching job at Purdue.
With Walters’ departure and Henry’s promotion, outside linebackers coach Kevin Kane, once seen as the presumptive favorite to ascend to Walters’ chair, will be departing Champaign for West Lafayette as well.
So what are the major ramifications of this promotion?
Devon Witherspoon’s ascent was likely a major factor in Henry’s promotion. Witherspoon went from unranked Keynodo Hudson recruit to a consensus All-American. His development over the past two seasons with Henry has been massive. He’s played his way into solid guaranteed NFL money and may be one of the first corners off the board in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Witherspoon allowed the lowest opposing completion percentage in the nation, and serves as the blueprint of what an Illini defensive back can become.
But losing both Ryan Walters and Kevin Kane in the same coaching cycle is a bitter pill. Sure, it’s a great thing when your coaches are sought after for promotions by other Power Five programs. But it’s a sharp sting in an uncomfortable place.
Even the most connected, respected head men (like Coach Bielema) with a deep rolodex of connections, would have trouble replacing two young, impressive, accomplished assistants. Losing them both to a conference and division rival gives the searing pain a metallic taste. As much confidence as Bret Bielema’s staff construction has granted him, this will be a herculean feat.
Purdue’s defense is going to be a massive problem. In an evolving Big Ten West, the team most known for explosive offense has just poached two young studs from one of the nation’s best defenses. And with the offensive reigns reportedly being taken by Graham Harrell, an explosive offense will follow closely. Their two coordinator hires and their young head coach make the Boilermakers a real threat in a conference that’s about to absorb Lincoln Riley and Chip Kelly.
WIth signing day coming up next week, the Illini are at a disadvantage on the recruiting trail. They are one assistant shy in the closing hours, which could negatively impact the Illini’s final early signing period class. However, there is a chance Aaron Henry’s relationship with current recruits is strong enough to avoid last-second flips away from the Illini.
The ship on Jyaire HIll may have sailed when Ryan Walters left, but perhaps the most important job of a defensive coordinator at the witching hour is to re-recruit players on the roster and verbally committed prospects. Henry has his work cut out for him.
The fanbase was unprepared for a man without defensive coordinator experience to replace a Broyles Award finalist. But if anyone is qualified to gage Aaron Henry’s ability to run/call a defense, it would be Bret Bielema. Coach B has a long history with Henry, who played for Bielema at Wisconsin. Henry’s connections and relationships in Florida and his prowess in coaching up underrated talent have been significant factors in the growth of the Illinois defensive juggernaut.
But how will that impact change with Henry in the big chair? How will the defense manage without Kevin Kane’s eye in the sky and Ryan Walters’ steady guidance? And who will be joining the staff and in what role?
Will Coach Bielema seek an ace recruiter like Corey Patterson or a skilled teacher like Andy Buh? With the winds of change blowing in the conference, this hire is of great significance. On the trail, Matt Rhule, Lincoln Riley, Luke Fickell, Chip Kelly and probably Ryan Walters will have tremendous talent acquisition infrastructures in place.
Illinois has to maintain the inroads it has and then expand to keep up with the changing landscape of the conference.
A first-time defensive coordinator may have a few growing pains early on. So recruiting experience in the portal to handle the ebbs and flows of success will be crucial to re-establishing momentum for the Illini. And that pursuit starts at the quarterback position, where the Illini currently have one scholarship player on the roster.
The jury is still out on Tommy DeVito’s waiver, and if he doesn’t come back, I don’t imagine a redshirt-freshman Donovan Leary being given the reigns of Barry Lunney’s offense.
I can’t predict what Coach Bielema’s next move will be. But it will be a significant barometer of what the program’s short- and long-term priorities are. The next week will be a rollercoaster, so be ready to feel good, bad, happy, and sad.