You've suffered from premature optimism before. But this time, it feels different — and not just because the Huskies are paying Wilcox $800,000 a year.
So, the question was asked, what’s a Justin Wilcox defense?
The new Washington defensive coordinator shot back quickly.
“This is a WASHINGTON defense,” he said, polite yet forceful.
If you wondered whether the former Oregon Duck would feel awkward representing the Huskies, well, there’s your answer. But more important is the revelation that a WASHINGTON defense will now be just that — a defense for and by and adaptable to the Huskies on the roster.
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The man stepping into this job of enormous expectations and intense scrutiny is one of college football’s most respected defensive minds because he’s a coaching chameleon. While Wilcox has his preferences about defense, he’s a well-versed 35-year-old coach with a willingness to employ whatever defensive strategy fits his current team best. He’s not stubborn about his way. He’s not a specialist. His specialty is versatility.
That’s why Wilcox has had consistent success as a defensive coordinator. That’s why he built a good defense at Boise State with one set of personnel and then helped Tennessee improve on defense with a different caliber of player.
Football folks would say he runs a multiple defensive scheme, which basically means Wilcox will do whatever needs to be done to help his team be competitive. He’ll run a 3-4 defense, unless he thinks the 4-3 suits his players better. He’ll challenge himself to make sure the Huskies are put in the proper position to succeed.
In other words, Wilcox is a coach, a real coach. Not a system guy, a coach.
Spend a half-hour around him and it becomes clear why Steve Sarkisian hired Wilcox to replace Nick Holt. Wilcox has the right skill set for this situation. It’s impossible to be sure in one meeting whether Wilcox can return the Huskies to their dominant defensive roots, but this much is certain: Washington has found a coordinator who will get the most out of what he has every year. And that’s the gold standard of coaching.
That’s what has been missing, right? It wasn’t just about the awful statistics. It was also about the belief that the Huskies had talent to develop but couldn’t do so properly, about the belief that they were unable to mask their problems and kept losing the same way on defense, about the belief that they couldn’t even capitalize consistently on their strengths.
I will be shocked if that kind of futility doesn’t end immediately. Don’t expect Wilcox to inspire instant greatness, but he’s the kind of coach (and this reconfigured defensive staff is the kind of staff) who can make the Huskies functional in a hurry.
“Let’s boil it down to this: We want to put a defense out there that is mentally and physically tough, that plays with fanatic effort and executes,” Wilcox said Wednesday. “As coaches, we can tweak schemes. That’s our job. But the most important thing is that we have to communicate in a way that gets our players to execute at a high level, down in and down out, for four quarters.
“We have a basis of things we like and believe in. We have a basic identity, but we’re not going to jam a square peg into a round hole. We can sit here and draw up 800 defensive plays, but what’s important is that we make it simple enough so that our players can go out there and play to the best of their abilities.”
New linebackers coach Peter Sirmon, another former Duck who also worked with Wilcox at Tennessee, is impressed with the coordinator’s ability to teach players. At Tennessee last season, Wilcox led the Volunteers to a No. 28 national ranking in total defense despite starting three freshmen. Sirmon says Wilcox talks to his defensive coaches about being “freshman friendly.”
“He’s so consistent with his message,” Sirmon said. “He doesn’t get watered down too much. Part of being a coach is knowing when not to coach too much. He knows how to keep it simple, so that it’s in a player’s mind, clean and clear.”
The Huskies could use some magic after allowing a school-record 453.3 yards per game last season, 107th of 120 teams in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision.
But for Wilcox, it’s not about magic. It’s about improving his players’ fundamentals and then making sure they’re in the right defense to thrive.
From now on, a WASHINGTON defense will be dependable, though not predictable.
“In Week 4 of the season, we’re not going to talk about needing to get back to the basics,” Wilcox said. “We’re going to get back to the basics every day. Defensive football is always going to come down to fundamentals.”
And Wilcox is always going to find a way to make the Huskies competitive. Yes, you’ve suffered from premature optimism before. But this time, it feels different — and not just because the Huskies are paying Wilcox $800,000 a year.
This time, they’ve invested their money in the kind of versatile coordinator they desperately need.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @Jerry_Brewer
|Huskies’ coaching staff|
|A look at Steve Sarkisian’s coaching staff at Washington for 2012:|
|Justin Wilcox||Defensive coordinator|
|Eric Kiesau||Offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach|
|Dan Cozzetto||Offensive line coach, run game coordinator|
|Jimmie Dougherty||Wide receivers coach, passing game coordinator|
|Keith Heyward||Defensive backs coach|
|Tosh Lupoi||Defensive line coach, defensive run game coordinator|
|Johnny Nansen||Assistant head coach, recruiting coordinator, special teams coordinator|
|Peter Sirmon||Linebackers coach|
|Joel Thomas||Running backs coach, associate head coach-offense|