Ryan Walters’ Day Off

Missouri’s defensive coordinator was forced to watch the Tigers’ 17-10 win over South Carolina from his couch after his wife tested positive for COVID-19.
Missouri's defense celebrates after linebacker Devin Nicholson's game-sealing interception against South Carolina on Nov. 21, 2020. SEC Media Portal

It all started with a bar of soap.

Missouri defensive coordinator Ryan Walters knew he might be in trouble when his wife, Tara, washed her hands in the bathroom sink and took a whiff of the suds that remained. She couldn’t smell a thing.

“The undefeated symptom is loss of smell,” Walters said. “There’s nothing else out there right now where you’re losing your smell.”

Tara Walters had already experienced some symptoms, like a headache and a mild temperature, but losing her smell provided a clear red flag. Her subsequent COVID-19 test came back positive.

“Obviously, I’m sleeping in the same bed every night,” Walters said. “We have a really good marriage. So, I was naturally contact-traced, and I had to stay home.”

The young defensive coordinator exited his 14-day quarantine on Monday, Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said. He missed Missouri’s 17-10 win over South Carolina as a result.

Walters has been Missouri’s defensive coordinator since 2016 and was retained, along with most of the defensive staff, when Drinkwitz took over in Columbia. The 34-year-old is widely thought of as a future head coach, but for three-and-a-half hours on Saturday, Nov. 21, he was just a fan.

“Game day was tough,” Walters said. “Not traveling with the team was tough.”

The week — actually two weeks, because Missouri’s Nov. 14 game against Georgia was postponed — prior to Saturday’s game was relatively normal. While he couldn’t be at practice with the team, Walters still stayed actively involved with the defensive preparation.

Every aspect, from watching tape to attending meetings to implementing new calls to game planning, was led by or at the very least involved Walters, just on a remote basis.

“I still was doing my job,” Walters said.

Technology allowed Walters to take an active role in game prep, but he could never call plays from his couch. Missouri’s contingency plan was defensive backs coach David Gibbs, who has coordinated many defenses, most recently Texas Tech’s defense from 2015 to 2018.

“We started talking about what happens if we have a season and one of the coaches gets contact-traced or gets COVID and can’t participate in a game: What are you gonna do?” Walters said. “Most importantly, what happens if the head coach has to sit out and both coordinators? Coach Gibbs has been a coordinator before we got here. … He was one of the guys I looked up to in this profession.”

“I’ve known about 13 days, so we’ve planned on it and we had to plan for next week, too,” Drinkwitz said. “I’m surprised none of y’all knew.”

The transition from Walters to Gibbs was smooth. Both coaches share many of the same defensive philosophies.

“We speak the same language, and we see the game in a very similar fashion,” Walters said. “That was just the natural progression of things if [me being unavailable] were to happen.”

Walters did what he could during the week and felt as prepared as he could be for the game, but that didn’t mean watching the broadcast feed from his home in Columbia wasn’t weird.

For a start, defensive play-callers are responsible for gameday tasks that can’t be scripted during the week. They have to make adjustments as the game progresses, decide when to dial up different blitz packages, mix coverages and match the opponent’s personnel.

Not only could Walters not do any of that, he couldn’t even call into the locker room at halftime.

“I was going crazy there for a little while,” Walters said.

Despite not being on the sideline, Walters watched the game as if he was coaching it. Every time Missouri broke into their formation, Walters watched closely to make sure all 11 men played their assignments correctly.

He didn’t have eyes on all 11 at all times, like he would with the coaches’ film, but he did use the opportunity to get a different perspective on the game. Hearing the commentators praise his team’s physical play, sound assignments and star linebacker was nice.

That didn’t stop him from analyzing the parts of his defense that no announcer can pick up, though.

“Just from the shell standpoint, you kind of see what the call is, and so immediately you’re looking at ‘Is the rotation the right way, is everybody doing their job?’” Walters said.

Walters’ fears were eased, however, when he saw how well Missouri’s defense began to play.

“I’m not gonna say I second-guessed anything,” Walters said. “Shoot, they played their tails off. There were no points on the board going into halftime, which was awesome.”

Walters’ wild week ended successfully. Neither he nor his two sons, Aaron and Cason, tested positive for COVID-19, and they were all tested regularly. Tara Walters is healthy and out of isolation.

And after the game, he FaceTimed with a locker room that was ready to welcome him back into the fold.

“I was proud of them, happy and celebrating with them,” Walters said. “We were definitely celebrating in the Walters household, for sure.”

_Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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