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Q+A Regarding Cal Coaching Candidate: Justin Wilcox

We reached out to the SB Nation sites Rocky Top Talk (University of Tennessee where Wilcox was Defensive Coordinator) and UW Dawg Pound (University of Washington where he currently hold that position) and they were gracious enough to answer our questions about prospective Cal Football head coaching candidate Justin Wilcox. Incipient_Senescence is from Rocky Top Talk and Gekko Mojo is from UW Dawg Pound. Thanks so much guys!

1. What quality impresses you the most about Wilcox?

Incipient_Senescence: The man is good at defense. He knows his schemes, he knows his players, he knows how to make them work together as well as they can.

I felt he was underrated coming to Tennessee because he was at Boise State, but he consistently churned out good defenses there without the benefit of 5* recruits all over the field. His defenses at Tennessee weren't phenomenal, but given the talent level, it was clear he was getting the absolute most out of what he had. Sheer lack of depth often brought everything crashing down in the second halves, but his defenses held championship level teams down longer than most. In his two years at Tennessee, he faced seven teams that would finish in the top ten, and just two of them scored more than one first half touchdown (2011 Arkansas put up 21 in the first half, 2011 LSU put up 17). That includes holding two national championship participants, 2010 Oregon and 2011 Alabama, to a combined 19 first-half points.

While second half collapses may worry you, I remain convinced they were a function of lack of depth and not lack of adjustments. I wrote a piece at the end of the 2011 season in which I argued that against non-top ten teams, you had better get Wilcox's defense early or not at all, because he locked down after the first two drives. (I apologize for being bad at charts and such. But there's commentary, and then raw data on how much of the opponents' total offensive output came in the first two drives. Answer: a lot). You may or may not be convinced, but I am. Wilcox makes fantastic in-game adjustments.

Gekko Mojo: Most impressive to me about Justin Wilcox is that he is like an offensive coordinator in a defensive coordinator position. He is among the most cerebral of personalities that I have ever observed serve in a defensive role for Washington. His approach, like many coaches, emphasizes preparation - but his form of conditioning focuses on preparing his players for conditions more so than situations. It is more of a military philosophy than it is a football philosophy and it allows him the freedom to implement creative ideas without having to be overly dependent on matching his scheme versus a corresponding look provided by the offense. Given that he was a quarterback and, later, a safety, this attribute shouldn't be surprising.

2. What quality disappoints you the most about Wilcox?

Incipient_Senescence: The flip side of my "great at adjustments" argument is that Wilcox often allowed the opponents' scripted drive at the beginning of the game to go maddeningly smoothly. If you asked me whether I'd rather be good for two drives or for the rest of the game, I'd take the rest of the game, but what's the problem getting out of the gate? You have as much film on them as they have on you.

Wilcox also doesn't seem like the fiery, screaming, motivating type of guy. It's possible that this has something to do with coming out of the first half gate a little slowly.

Gekko Mojo: After only a single season as a DC, I'm not sure I can say that anything about his performance or quality of character is disappointing. That said, the impressive turnaround of the Husky defense hasn't been a complete turnaround. In fact, the Huskies were worse in pass rush than last year and many of Wilcox's attempts at generating pressure were woefully inadequate. Some of this was simply a matter of his young defenders not being able to get off blocks but some of it was, obviously, failed implementation.

3. Talk about how well Wilcox recruits.

Incipient_Senescence: We never heard that much about Wilcox recruiting. Kids seemed to like him well enough, but nobody seemed to fall in love with him. And, given how recruiting legends get exaggerated, this probably means that Wilcox is not the kind of guy who will be your ace recruiter. But you know who will be your ace recruiter? Peter Sirmon. Sirmon was Wilcox's college roommate and is a pretty good coach in his own right, at least judging from his work with Tennessee's linebackers in 2011. And Peter Sirmon is an absolute all-star on the recruiting trail. Every single highly-rated defense prospect on Tennessee's radar in last year's class listed Sirmon as a big reason for their interest. It should come as no surprise that some of the best linebackers in the class jumped ship when Sirmon left for Seattle.

I expect that if Wilcox goes to Cal, Sirmon will follow, and Sirmon will provide all the recruiting punch you need. Wilcox himself should be fine, but nothing special.

Gekko Mojo: I can't say that I have any unique insights into how JW recruits as I've never been recruited by him. However, he's gonna be the kind of guy who walks into a room with a pretty impressive resume in tow and then will surprise you with his modest demeanor which barely conceals his obvious intelligence. I'm sure recruits are impressed with his youth and his ability to connect with them while parents are likely compelled by his maturity and his sense of accountability.

Justin Wilcox (via RealdawgTV)

4. What was Wilcox's biggest moment as your coach/coordinator?

Incipient_Senescence: You might've noticed that we haven't had many big moments in the last few years at Tennessee. My top choice would probably be holding the 2010 LSU team to three points for 59 minutes and 50 seconds (Sadly, LSU scored touchdowns on the first and last plays of the game to win 16-14). The aforementioned first halves against Oregon and Alabama were also nice moments that were ruined by the second halves.

To throw out one last candidate, tightening the screws on the 2011 Cincinnati team after giving up touchdowns on the opening two possessions is an underrated feat. Most people don't realize the kind of talent the Bearcats had on offense with Collaros, Pead, and Woods. Tennessee was the only team that beat Cincy that year before Collaros went down with a broken ankle in mid-November, and it was in no small part due to defense. After the Bearcats scored touchdowns on their first two possessions, they didn't find the end zone again until the 4th quarter when they trailed 42-17 and Tennessee had their benchwarmers in.

Gekko Mojo: The Stanford game was a true coming out party for both the UW defense and for Justin Wilcox. The Cardinal came into that game as a heavy favorite, the Cardinal were averaging over 30 points a game and had just scored a huge upset victory over then #2 USC. The Huskies had been physically pummeled by Stanford each of the last three years to the point that Andrew Luck was hardly a factor in either of the previous two games. Of course, UW's D stood toe to toe against the big offensive linemen of the Cardinal without ever suffering a real breach or succumbing to the bruising style of the Cardinal offense. The Huskies D would have ups and downs as the season would go on, but the toughness of the unit was established and would endure for the entire season - Wilcox gave them that gift.

5. What convinces you the most that Wilcox would be a good head coach? What would be your biggest concern?

Incipient_Senescence: He knows his schemes, and he knows how to fit them to his personnel. A lot of coaches can do one or the other, but not nearly so many can do both. It doesn't matter who you lined up on defense, Wilcox would get the absolute most out of them. And those are the sorts of things that make good head coaches. You have to know how to put your guys in position to maximize their talents, and he does.

The biggest concern is that he hasn't done it. You never know how a coordinator will do as a head coach until you see them coaching. For every Bob Stoops there's an Ellis Johnson. My secondary concern would be that he seems like the kind of guy who likes to stay out of the spotlight. In fact, there were rumors that the fishbowl that is the Tennessee football program is what pushed him back West in the first place (alternative rumor, which may be more plausible: he saw from the inside that Dooley was a sinking ship, and he got out while he could). I know he can coach defenses, but is he the guy to be the face of a program? That I cannot say.

Gekko Mojo: I'm sure that Wilcox is going to be a successful coach sooner rather than later. He understands the college game, the value of recruiting and the importance of adopting contemporary methods for training and practice. As a defensive minded coach, he offers a unique value proposition that has been undervalued in the game, but his depth of experience includes stints with some very talented offensive minds. On top of that, he's the son of a coach. Wilcox was born to run a program.

6. Wilcox has had some really good defenses at both Tennessee and Boise State, but most recently his defense at Washington has been mediocre. Would you attribute this to a lack of talent at Washington compared to his
previous schools (they did lose a lot of starters from last year I believe), or is this due to some other factor (such as stopping fast, high scoring, pac 12 offenses)?

Incipient_Senescence: I have no doubt that Wilcox can stop fast, high-scoring Pac-12 offenses. Again, I offer the beginning of the 2010 Oregon game as evidence. If that's not enough, check out the 2009 Oregon/Boise State game when Wilcox was with the Broncos.

I don't follow the Pac-12 as closely as the SEC, but it's my understanding that Washington's defense is 2011 was really, really terrible, and that it actually improved a great deal in 2012. So I would say he is again getting the most out of players who just don't have the upside to form an elite defense.

If you need more evidence that Wilcox gets the most out of his guys, compare the 2011 and 2012 Tennessee defenses. Tennessee lost just three contributors from the 2011 team: DT Malik Jackson was a late-round NFL selection by Denver (and was replaced by mammoth JUCO Dan McCullers, who was one of the few bright spots in 2012), MLB Austin Johnson (a converted fullback) graduated, and CB Izauea Lanier (a part-time starter in 2011) was ruled academically ineligible. And the defense took an absolute nose-dive. The defense that held Georgia and South Carolina to 20 and 14 points in 2011 gave up 51 and 38 in 2012. The defense that shut out MTSU in 2011 gave up 48 points to Troy in 2012. The defense that held Vanderbilt without a touchdown drive of more than 40 yards in 2011 gave up 41 points in 2012. The 2011 defense was shallow and lacked talent, but they still managed to be better than average. The 2012 defense is the worst in school history, and it isn't close.

Gekko Mojo: Considering the lack of depth created by injuries to key players, in particular Hau'oli Jamora and Nate Fellner, as well as the overall youth of the players started (only four starters were upperclassmen), the turnaround of the Husky D in 2012 was anything but mediocre. I glanced at the DEFI ratings from Football Outsiders. As of week 12, UW was ranked #33 in the nation ahead of teams like Texas, USC, Utah, Cal and Iowa...teams who came into the year figuring to feature strong defenses. To be fair, UW failed to solve the spread oriented teams they faced this year - in particular those with strong rushing attacks like Oregon and Arizona. Wilcox's team got skewered by these teams.

Justin Wilcox talks to the media after Wednesdays practice. (via InsideTennessee)

7. Is Wilcox interested in a head coaching job? Up until now, he has seemed content being a coordinator on teams that have defensive talent. Is this because he hasn't been offered a solid head coaching job yet, or would he rather remain a DC on a solid defensive squad?

Incipient_Senescence: I don't know what ambitions Wilcox does or doesn't have, or what jobs he has and hasn't been offered. But he doesn't seem like the sort of guy who will take just any chance to work his way up the ladder. He's confident in his ability to construct a defense, and he's consistently been rumored for West Coast jobs, so it's not like he has to take a job while he's still in demand. He'll be in demand as long as he wants to be. I imagine that he's biding his time and waiting for the right offer rather than jumping on the first thing that comes down the pike.

Gekko Mojo: Well, this is his third defensive coordinator position. I can't imagine he's simply interested in hopping from DC to DC job. One would presume that the calculus behind making the move to UW involved both a preference for the west coast and to seize an opportunity to jump ahead of the celebrity SEC defensive coordinators (or soon to be DCs) in the queue for future head coaching jobs.

8. Have you had any personal interactions with Wilcox and, if so, how were they?

Gekko Mojo: Not yet. I suspect that if I did he would simply just stare at me and intimidate me with odd facial twitches.

9. Academics will be a focus at Cal. Tell us more about Wilcox's track record helping student athletes meeting their academic challenges.

Gekko Mojo: Wilcox was apparently qualified enough in this regard to be hired by Cal before - I suppose that counts for something. I'm not sure what capabilities you Cal fans are specifically looking for in order to give yourselves comfort that your coaching prospect is adequately accomplished in facilitating the academic standards of that the university demands of its students, so I don't know how to comment on it.

10. Tell us one story that defines Wilcox's character

Incipient_Senescence: I don't have a lot of insight into any of these questions, but I can say that Wilcox was largely free of the rumors that plague coaches who go elsewhere. When a coach leaves, everyone suddenly starts divulging information that shows that they were a problem and are better off elsewhere. All I've heard about Wilcox is a rumor that he's currently dating someone who was a Tennessee undergraduate last year. And even if that's true, it's a pretty tame rumor. I'd say that's a good sign.

Thanks again to Incipient_Senescence from <a href="" target="new">Rocky Top Talk</a> and Gekko Mojo from <a href="" target="new">UW Dawg Pound</a> for taking the time to answer all of our questions! Be sure to check out their sites for more insightful info!

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