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Strong trio emerges in Illinois DC search

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Bret Bielema has assembled many of the key pieces of his inaugural Illinois staff, in Bielema's return to head coaching after three seasons as an NFL assistant.

Sunday, Illinois announced the key addition of strength coach Tank Wright from Jeff Monken's resurgent Army program and today Bielema announced Mark Taurisani as his chief of staff.

Previously, Bielema had nabbed Tony Petersen as his offensive coordinator from App State.

Now, though it's possible an unnamed candidate could surface, Bielema appears to have narrowed down his next key post – defensive coordinator – to a trio of finalists.

Multiple sources tell FootballScoop that Bielema's been conducting interviews with Missouri's Ryan Walters, Oklahoma State's Jim Knowles and Wofford's Josh Conklin.

A decision could come as soon as Tuesday.

A former Broyles Award finalist with stellar defensive work at both Florida International and Pittsburgh as defensive coordinator, Conklin's been a strong success as a head coach at FCS Southern Conference power Wofford. Conklin's guided the Terriers to back-to-back Southern Conference titles, winning the league outright in 2019 after sharing the crown in '18 while also advancing to the FCS Playoffs in each of those campaigns.

Unsurprisingly, Conklin's Wofford teams have played fierce defense. The Terriers allowed just 19 points per game in his debut season and just 22 ppg in '19; against FCS peers, Wofford allowed less than 19 ppg last season.

Knowles interviewed Sunday with Bielema & Co. He's the veteran-most coach of the group, having coordinated defenses at Duke for several years under David Cutcliffe after previously serving as head coach at Cornell. He's been with Oklahoma State the past three seasons as Mike Gundy's defensive coordinator, and earned $800,000 this season for his work guiding the nation's No. 35 scoring defense, at just more than 23 points per game, and No. 45 overall defense at 379 yards per game.

Walters has been a fixture at Missouri, beginning his time on staff with the Tigers under former coach Barry Odom and transitioning into the Eli Drinkwitz era as Missouri's defensive coordinator – the fifth season in a row that Walters had been either co-defensive coordinator or leader of the defensive unit. Walters' 2019 Missouri defense ranked among the nation's best in total defense at 14th nationally in yards per game (312) and 17th in scoring (19.4). Like Knowles, Walters earned $800,000 this season after he received a significant bump in the staff transition from Odom to Drinkwitz.

As always, stay tuned to The Scoop for the latest coaching news.