Aaron Fletcher has been Missouri’s secondary coach for around six months now, joining the program in February after six years at Tulsa. He’s been a coach in some capacity since 2001, but it still sometimes feels surreal when his boss asks, “Fletch, what do you think?”
His boss is Missouri defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, a former longtime NFL coach who most recently held the same position with the Cleveland Browns in 2019. Wilks’ acumen as an experienced signal-caller brings an air of gravitas and legitimacy to the Tigers’ defense as it looks for consistency and tries to bounce back following a shaky season.
“I’ve learned so much from him, not just from a football standpoint, but just how he carries himself,” Fletcher said. “I’m looking at him and I’m exposed and I’m just watching him sometimes like (telling myself), ‘Hey, now ask questions.’”
“Coach Wilks is a man’s man,” linebackers coach D.J. Smith said. “When he walks in a room, your ears perk up, and everybody’s (paying) attention to him. You want to listen to what he has to say. He’s got that type of respect. He’s got that type of cache. I think he’s gonna bring to the team a toughness, a certain attitude, a pro’s pro and doing things the right way.”
After allowing at least 35 points in seven of 10 games in 2020, Missouri made nearly wholesale changes on the defensive coaching staff over the offseason. Wilks replaced Ryan Walters, who had been with the program since Barry Odom was at the helm, after he accepted a job as Illinois’ defensive coordinator in January. Line coach Brick Haley and cornerbacks coach David Gibbs, two more holdovers from the Odom era, left within the next month. Fletcher and Jethro Franklin joined before the start of spring camp.
Wilks outlined his vision and revamped scheme when he was hired. The Tigers will play more zone coverage than before, which, Wilks said, would allow defensive backs to spend more time facing the line of scrimmage and reading quarterbacks’ eyes, ideally leading to more turnovers. Coach Eliah Drinkwitz said in July that Missouri will often play with five defensive backs.
Franklin, in charge of the defensive line, hadn’t worked with Wilks before this year, but he had coached against him in the NFL.
“His defenses always play great, play with great discipline,” Franklin said. “Your goal is always to outplay the other team’s defense whoever you play. We had some tough battles along the way.”
All the offseason turnover on the staff made Smith, 32, one of the most senior members of the defensive coaching staff in just his second year. He played on Wilks’ defense with the Carolina Panthers in 2014, so he has a sense of both how Wilks does things and more comfort in his own job — only his second college coaching gig.
“Now it’s kind of clear-cut, ‘Hey, these are the expectations,’” Smith said. ”’This is the standard. This is the culture that we want to build here at University of Missouri,’ and we’re gonna meet that standard every day. So now it’s no question of, ‘Hey, well I’m not really sure what the expectations are.’ They’re clear-cut and concise on what we want from our players on the field and off the field.”
But for all the aura and new culture Wilks brings, he too finds himself in less-than-familiar territory. The last time he coached college football was in 2005 with Washington. Since then, he’s worked in the NFL. Around this time each of the past 15 years — 2020, the year he was jobless, being the only exception — Wilks had been working with men for whom football is a full-time job, who don’t have to go to class five days a week during the season. Every year he’s gotten four preseason games to see his team before the start of the regular season.
All of that is different this year, taking place in a college football landscape that between realignment and NIL could soon hardly resemble what it looked like in June, much less 2005.
Still, as Wilks said in his introductory presser in January, football is football. And his experience coaching it at the highest level is what MU hopes will contribute to a bounce-back season on defense.
“I think you still take the same approach,” he said. “You wish you had those preseason games to try to work out some kinks, and really see yourself against live competition, someone else, but we’ll create those scenarios and whatnot throughout training camp. Coach Drink does a great job of that. Putting the pads on, being physical, setting the tone is going to be our mindset.”