When Mike Stoops was hired to coach the Arizona Wildcats after the 2003 season, Ryan Walters was a senior quarterback. In high school.
Now, Walters is Stoops’ secondary coach.
It took a strange set of circumstances to make it happen, but Walters, at age 25, was officially announced Monday as Arizona’s new secondary coach after spending one season as a graduate assistant with the Cats.
“To be able to do this at the age I am is a humbling experience and very gratifying,” he said.
“It speaks a lot to Mike’s confidence in me. I don’t want to let him down, the fans down, the players down. I am working tirelessly to be the best defensive backs coach I can be.”
Walters will be the second youngest assistant coach in the Pac-12, trailing Utah’s first-year quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, 24.
Walters’ big opportunity comes after Duane Akina, whose resume as a secondary coach might be without peer, spent only a few weeks on the job at Arizona. He left Feb. 14 to return to his old position at Texas.
“When he called me and told me he was leaving, my first response was a little bit of disappointment because I could have learned a lot under him,” Walters said. “But then I was hopeful because this was something I thought I was capable of doing.”
Walters said he thought he was capable of doing the job after the 2010 regular season. That is when Greg Brown, the team’s secondary coach and co-defensive coordinator, left to begin his third tour with Colorado.
Walters calls Brown “his extreme mentor and role model.” Walters played safety for Brown at Colorado, and he followed the coach to Arizona after the 2009 season to begin his coaching career.
After Brown’s departure, Stoops turned the secondary over to Walters in December for the Alamo Bowl. Despite the lopsided 36-10 loss to Oklahoma State, the defense actually played pretty well, holding the Cowboys to a season-low 312 yards. Other than one long scoring play, the secondary largely bottled up Justin Blackmon, the winner of the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best receiver.
“What stood out in Mike’s mind was the way I handled the whole situation,” Walters said.
“Mike and I worked together a lot through that. He saw how I worked and interacted with the guys. He saw my knowledge base there and he saw how eager I was to work with Akina after having not gotten the job the first time.”
Stoops, naturally, jumped at the chance to land Akina when he could. When he had to fill the job again, though, Stoops opted to catch a potential rising star.
“He had concerns with the experience deal and kind of my age,” Walters said. “I felt like I worked hard enough and was mature enough to gain his approval.”
No doubt, Walters will be in the line of fire. The secondary is Stoops’ old stomping grounds. Walters, given his background with Brown, is a believer in man-to-man defense. Stoops is more of a zone guy. Last season was a mix of those philosophies.
Walters, despite his youth and inexperience, said he won’t have a problem speaking his mind.
“Even last year in game-planning meetings, I wasn’t afraid to speak up and express my opinion,” he said. “And coaches were very receptive of that. All ears are open.”
He does inherit experience in the secondary — senior cornerbacks Trevin Wade and Robert Golden, junior safety Adam Hall — and intriguing young talent. Sophomore cornerbacks Shaquille Richardson and Jonathan McKnight, and sophomore safety Marquis Flowers, will be looking to build upon solid rookie seasons.
Walters said he had the support of the Arizona secondary when he was up for the full-time job as assistant.
“The players have been awesome. They were trying to get Mike to hire me,” Walters said.
“They would call me all the time, saying, ‘What’s going on? We want you to be the guy.’ They were very happy, very excited. Everyone in this building has been awesome.”
Walters, who attended Grandview High in Aurora, Colo., ended up starting 33 games in the secondary for Colorado. He earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors in 2008, finishing his career with 223 tackles and four interceptions.
“After exploring our options I felt Ryan is the best fit at this time for our team,” Stoops said in a press release. “He brings a youthful energy to the staff and solid knowledge of our system. We’re able to continue preparations for spring ball immediately.”
Spring ball starts March 21, and Walters figures he won’t get a day off until then … shoot, maybe not until the end of spring practice on April 16.
“That’s fine with me,” he said. “I love working and love the situation I’m in. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Arizona announced that former UA quarterback Kris Heavner will take over the offensive graduate assistant position, replacing the departed Matt Rice. Stoops has not yet brought in a defensive graduate assistant to replace Walters. … Walters said he had been working toward a masters degree in educational psychology but will mostly put that pursuit on hold for now.