Drinkwitz lands his guy in new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks

Missouri’s coach interviewed several candidates, but made just one trip in his search for his next defensive coordinator.

In the search for a new defensive coordinator, Missouri football coach Eli Drinkwitz left Columbia to interview a potential candidate just once.

That trip was to Charlotte, N.C., to visit long-time NFL coach and coordinator, Steve Wilks.

Drinkwitz got to know Wilks when the former coached at Appalachian State, but even before then, it was hard to not hear the Charlotte-raised head coach’s name pop up among North Carolina coaching circles.

While at Wilks’ Charlotte home, Drinkwitz went all-in to persuade the coach that now would be the perfect time to jump back into college coaching; that Missouri –– an up-and-coming team in college football’s premier conference –– would be the perfect opportunity and fit for him.

From there, Drinkwitz returned to Columbia and recruited Wilks as he would a high-level prospect.

“I hope that Coach Drink is as good in the home as he was with me for his closing,” Wilks said. “I tried to keep him off for a while because I was looking at some other things, but the more I prayed about it, the more my wife and I had discussions about it, I just knew that after he came down to Charlotte, I felt the connection.”

Wilks’ hire came shortly after former defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, who coached at Missouri between 2015 to 2020, left the Tigers for the same job at Illinois.

Drinkwitz acknowledged that he had a shortlist of candidates and some specific criteria when he began to look around for Walters’ replacement. He wanted to find a man of character, someone who could both teach and communicate and somebody with plenty of experience at the NFL level that he could bounce ideas off of and learn from.

While he said he fielded plenty of phone calls from a bevy of other candidates, Drinkwitz continued to circle back to Wilks, a name that met all three of his benchmarks.

“He’s got more experience in the NFL than I believe any coach in our conference,” Drikwitz said. “Why would you look anywhere else than with Coach Wilks and what he’s done in the past on the defensive side of the football?”

Wilks was most recently the defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns, but before that, he was the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. Over his 25 years as a coach, Wilks’ built up plenty of his own connections that should help as he jumps back into the college game for the first time since 2005.

One coach of note is Lovie Smith, who he coached under as defensive backs coach for the Chicago Bears between 2006 and 2008.

During those years in the NFL, Wilks coached multiple former Tigers, including Markus Golden, Kony Ealy and Sheldon Richardson. When asked about his communication with them, Wilks said that they all had nothing but positive things to say about their time in Columbia.

“Markus has talked very highly of [Missouri],” Wilks said. “Of course he would, he has a lot of pride about this university and told me, ‘Coach, you’re going to love it.’”

Over time, there was something about Missouri that stood out. Early conversations between the two coaches involved Drinkwitz sharing his vision for the team, and the pair shared views on the team’s goals and what it would take on a daily basis to accomplish them.

Still, Wilks had plenty of suitors and could be selective about his next head-coaching opportunity.

So, what exactly did it take for Drinkwitz to convince Wilks –– who stepped away from the game for a season after being fired from the Browns –– to jump back down to the college level after over a decade in the NFL?

“[Wilks] had a lot of opportunities,” Drinkwitz said. “A lot of different places that he could have ended up. But I think the opportunity to be at Mizzou, to get into the best conference in college football and to establish himself here as a great defensive coordinator, I think is going to open up a lot of doors for him in the future.”

The chemistry and culture that Drinkwitz constantly talks about building also stood out. Wilks knows a thing or two about developing a culture and believed that he can be a part of that growth at Missouri.

“What I’ve learned, particularly in my time in ‘18 at the Arizona Cardinals, is that it is harder to install a culture than it is to install a defense,” Wilks said. “You have to have the right chemistry; you have to have the right people and players. I felt like [Drinkwitz] has done a great job of trying to assemble that here.”

As far as the on-field fit goes, Wilks has an idea or two about what he wants the Tigers defense to look like next season.

Everything will start from up front, around the defensive line. Wilks specifically mentioned wanting to build around redshirt junior Trajan Jeffcoat, who finished last season with a team-high six sacks.

Wilks stressed physicality and effort; he wants his defense to play aggressive with linebackers going downhill and defensive backs breaking on the ball. Schematically, Wilks says he wants to simplify his scheme to “minimize the volume and maximize the execution.”

And when it comes to recruiting, Wilks knows how valuable player development can be at a school like Missouri. In the NFL, he prided himself on taking late-round draft picks and free agents and turning them into longtime NFL players. Now he wants to turn under-recruited high school kids into future NFL stars.

“We may not always get the five-star players,” Wilks said. “We’re going to shoot for them, but if we get a four-star, we’re going to make them a five [star]. If we get a three [star], we’re going to make them a five [star]. That’s our job as coaches.”

When the 2020 college football season concluded, Drinkwitz's first text was to Wilks.

“Do you want to really have an impact, come back to college and really focus on these young men?” it read.

“Coach, I’ve been thinking about college as well as the NFL,” Wilks responded. “I’ve been talking to my family, and I’m definitely open for conversations.”

Just a few weeks later, Wilks walked into the press conference room at the Mizzou Athletic Training Complex ready to address local media for the first time.

He talked about finding a program that brings job longevity and a sense of culture, one that gives him the perfect opportunity to jump into the college game for the first time in over a decade.

Meanwhile, Drinkwitz watched off-camera knowing that he landed his guy.

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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