By Mark Schremmer
Globe Sports Writer
After 41 years as a football coach, Wally Ake’s passion for the game remains strong.
“It hasn’t got old,” Ake said. “As long as I’m healthy enough and I can have the right energy and do my job right, I’m just going to keep coaching. I just love it. It’s not who I am, but it’s what I do and I really love doing it.”
Ake enters his first season as Missouri Southern’s defensive coordinator after coaching on the defensive side of the ball for such Division I schools as Maryland, Arkansas, Clemson, Rice, Air Force and Army. He replaces Jay Thomas, who left to become head coach at Northwestern State University.
“He offers a wealth of knowledge and stability,” Missouri Southern head coach Daryl Daye said. “It’s hard to match his experience and his resume.”
Ake is familiarizing himself with the Lions’ defensive personnel during spring practices and hopes to build on a unit that allowed the third fewest total yards (358.7 ypg) in the MIAA last season. Missouri Southern’s base defense will change from four down linemen to three.
“We’re just going through a learning curve putting in a new defense,” Ake said. “But it’s fun. It’s a lot of moving, a lot of stunting. The players like it and are enjoying it, and we just got to polish it up and make sure we’re all going in the right direction when the calls come in.”
The Lions will be replacing three all-MIAA defensive players, including All-American and NFL draft prospect Brandon Williams at defensive tackle.
“We need depth at every position,” Ake said. “That’s probably the biggest concern is to find depth that will play, because you’re going to get nicked and bumped during the season. I think we can have a good up front group. Gaining consistency is going to be the biggest thing. We are a young football team. Maybe not young in age, but young in experience because we do have a lot of transfers in here learning the schemes for the first time.”
Senior linebacker Gatlin Ridgway said the unit is making the necessary adjustments and learning from Ake.
“It’s different, but he’s trying to keep it simple for us,” Ridgway said. “He’s very smart in what he does.
“Brandon (Williams) is going to be tough to replace, of course, but I think we’ll be all right once we start getting everything in. We’re going to fly around. We’re going to make some plays.”
The defense will be directed by a coach who has worked at the collegiate level for 33 years and 41 years overall.
Ake comes to Missouri Southern after serving as Campbell University’s defensive coordinator in 2012. Before that, he coached the secondary and linebackers at Liberty from 2009-11. Ake came to Liberty from Army. While at Army he served as secondary coach for the Black Knights for five years (2004-08).
Ake worked for three years at Western Michigan (2001-03) as a defensive backs coach and special teams coordinator. Ake was the defensive coordinator for Maryland (1997-2000). Nine of his Maryland players went on to NFL careers, including four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kris Jenkins.
Ake's first defensive coordinator position came at Rice, where he oversaw the Owls for three seasons (1994-96).
Ake coached the linebackers at Clemson for four years (1990-03), the defensive line at Arkansas for six years (1984-89) and for three years at Air Force (1981-83).
He had his first stint at Arkansas working with the tight ends in 1980. Ake started his collegiate career working with the linebackers at his alma mater, William & Mary, in 1979.
“It’s nice to get emails from former players,” Ake said. “At the last job I was at, I had three guys I coached in high school email and tell me that they appreciate what I did as a coach. Then I realize these guys are in the their mid-50s. Whoa, I’ve been doing this for a long time. That’s why you’re in it though. There’s more to football than the game itself. It teaches life lessons.”
The Lions finished 2012 at 6-5 for their first winning season since 2007. This fall, Missouri Southern will try to post consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1996 and 1997.
“This could really be a good place because of the assets we have here,” Ake said. “What we’re going to do with the players scheme-wise is going to give us a chance to win and build a good solid program. Coach Daye has got a plan, and we’re working it.”