The first in an unknown number of in-depth looks at the collection of coaches charged with saving Cal football (and by extension, Cal athletics) from the abyss.
Is Justin Wilcox the head coach that can turn around Cal football?
The hell if I know. That’s a gigantic question. And, since Wilcox has never before been a head coach, we don’t have any history and evidence to use to judge certain abilities, or lack thereof.
For example - does he know how to hire strong assistant coaches, particularly on the offensive side of the ball? Early returns are positive, but still unproven. How are his game management skills? No clue. How is he with the media and donors? Your best guess is as good as mine.
This is the challenge Cal perpetually faces. Since Cal has neither the history nor the sheer buying power to lure proven head coaches from other programs, we’re stuck hiring unproven up-and-comers and hoping that they have what it takes. Sometimes you get early Tedford. More often than not you get Keith Gilbertson.
But there is one thing we can begin to analyze objectively. Like Sonny Dykes was hired to fix the moribund Tedford offense, Justin Wilcox was hired in part to fix a defense that hasn’t been decent since 2011. Let’s take a look back at Wilcox’s 15 year coaching career and see if he’s the guy bring the Cal defense back.
2003-2005: Linebacker coach, University of California
Wilcox started as a graduate assistant at Boise St. in 2002 before being hired to work under Jeff Tedford and Bob Gregory at Cal. As a result, he was at Cal during the rebirth under Tedford. He inherited a relatively veteran group of LBs upon arrival, and guided players like Wendell Hunter and Ryan Gutierrez to early success. Cal knew that most of their experienced LBs would be graduating in 2004, and Wilcox was involved in the recruitment of Zach Follett, Desmond Bishop, Anthony Felder, Worrell Williams, and the rest of a group of very productive linebackers that would excel at Cal well after Wilcox had left for a promotion to defensive coordinator.
For each of the next 11 seasons after leaving Cal, Justin Wilcox has been a defensive coordinator. Even better, he has worked under an offensive-minded head coaches (Petersen, Dooley, Sarkisian, Chryst) every single year as a DC, so I feel comfortable saying that he probably had a high degree of control over what happened on the defensive side of the ball. Let’s look at what he did at each stop.
2006-2009: Defensive Coordinator, Boise State
Below you will see the advanced stat national rankings* for Boise St.’s defense both prior to and after Wilcox’s tenure at defensive coordinator, with years directly under Wilcox in bold. I’m going to show you similar charts for every stop in Wilcox’s career. To a certain extent, you can see what you want from these numbers. If team defense stays the same or improves after Wilcox leaves, it’s because he left a great foundation! If team defense gets worse, it’s because they couldn’t replicate his coaching!
But if nothing else, you’ll get a sense of whether or not Wilcox improves defenses when he takes over, and how his teams improve under him without context.
As you can see from the chart above, the basic advanced stats came into existence at about the same time as Wilcox started at Boise St. And what you get is perhaps the most impressive stretch of coaching in Wilcox’s career. He quickly turns Boise St. from a solid mid-major defense into an elite defense without qualifications.
You also have to like his talent profile. From 2006 through 2009 (i.e, players that were almost entirely recruited before Wilcox arrived) Boise St. produced three NFL draft picks. But from 2010 through 2013 (players recruiting while Wilcox was DC) Boise St. produced seven draft picks. That indicates to me that Wilcox could both win with inherited players, while also upgrading the talent pool through his own recruiting. I also appreciate that the defense stayed elite until the players he recruited started graduating.
With Chris Petersen firmly entrenched and seemingly never leaving Boise, Wilcox probably needed to head elsewhere to advance his career. That chance came at Tennessee.
2010-2011: Defensive Coordinator, Tennessee
Here’s where things get complicated. How do you break down Wilcox’s time at Rocky Top?
The numbers would indicate that Wilcox wasn’t particularly successful. His defenses were mediocre, and didn’t fare well after he left (although Tennessee’s 2012 defense came under first time, and, as it turns out, only time, defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri).
On the other hand, The Volunteers were a team in absolute chaos, under their 3rd head coach in as many years. When he decided to leave for Washington, Tennessee fans were not happy to see him go:
Keep in mind, you don't find any of us saying "screw Wilcox, he sucks" today. That guy is going to be a good head coach one day; he did a better job with a huge mess than he ever got credit for at Tennessee, and we kept waiting to see what could really happen when he got some talent and depth. But now that day is gone.
It sounds like Wilcox stepped into a chaotic situation and managed to keep his head above water before realizing that Tennessee was too dysfunctional to stick with. He headed to Seattle to join on with Steve Sarkisian.
2012-2013: Defensive Coordinator, Washington
If Wilcox’s time at Boise isn’t the most impressive part of his career, his time at Washington would be the other choice:
Steve Sarkisian took over a very broken Washington in 2009 and quickly rehabilitated them to mediocrity, mostly by fixing the offense. But in 2011, the Washington defense was AWFUL, a fact illustrated when UW lost a bowl game despite scoring 56 points.
It wasn’t a perfect turnaround (Oregon, for example, still owned the Huskies), but Wilcox stepped in and helped engineer an immediate turnaround from bad-to-mediocre-to-above-average that turned 7 win Sark into 9 win Sark. More annoyingly, his recruiting helped build the talent base that would take Chris Petersen’s best-in-the-North Huskies to the CFB playoffs this past year. Sigh.
2014-2015: Defensive Coordinator, USC
Another situation that’s hard to judge, for reasons that we’re all very familiar with:
Again, this is a pretty clear decline from the year prior. It’s not like USC had bad defenses in either year under Wilcox, but neither were they up to the high standards set by USC’s prestige and talent access.
In Wilcox’s defense, he once again was following the wreckage wrought by Lane Kiffin, then was later caught in the wreckage of Steve Sarkisian. USC saw four head coaches in a three year span, to say nothing of the NCAA sanctions that impacted depth of talent.
Wilcox’s defense had some great games - shutting down Stanford, Wazzu, and Notre Dame in 2014 - and some eggs, including a baffling performance against a one dimensional Boston College and two defenestrations at the hands of a fully weaponized McCaffrey. I’ll leave it up to you the reader how much credit/blame Wilcox gets for USC’s performances.
2016: Defensive Coordinator, Wisconsin
Not a ton so say here:
Wilcox inherited an excellent, veteran defense (10 starters had spent at least 3 years in the program) and didn’t do anything to screw it up. That’s not super impressive, but it’s not nothing, particularly considering the limited and inherently conservative offensive scheme that placed a ton of pressure on the Wisconsin defense to not screw up. I don’t know how much Wilcox’s preferred scheme differed from what Wisconsin ran the year prior to his arrival, but either way Wilcox knew to leave well enough alone and not fix what wasn’t broken.
Justin Wilcox has had 5 different stints as a defensive coordinator that have taken him to four different conferences and a wide variety of situations, from stability to chaos, from rebuilding to maintaining high performance. He may not have any head coaching experience, but you can’t argue he hasn’t seen plenty in his career. While his defenses have not been uniformly elite, they have never dipped below the top 50 in the nation and they have occasionally finished in the top 10. His more mediocre defenses can perhaps be explained away dysfunction at the top of the program both prior to and during his years in charge.
Wilcox faces a massive challenge in his first head coaching job. Cal’s defense last year ranked 117th and 106th in the advanced stat rankings - even the Washington defense still recovering from the ravages of the Willingham era weren’t quite as bad as the defense left behind by Sonny Dykes.
Success or failure will likely be determined by how Wilcox answers two questions:
- Is Wilcox the man to turn this defense around?
- Can Wilcox hire offensive assistant coaches capable of maintaining a successful offense left behind by the previous regime?
Wilcox’s job performance in 11 years suggests that he’s about as likely as anybody to fix Cal’s defense. Just as importantly, the early returns indicate that he’s not going to screw up the other side of the ball either.
I just want to tell you good luck. We’re all counting on you.
*As a reminder: S&P and FEI are advanced stats that attempt to correct for pace of play and strength of schedule, factors that distort more traditional defensive rankings in favor of teams that have to defend fewer plays or face weaker opposition. S&P is based on play-by-play efficiency, FEI on drive efficiency. For more information, check out FootballOutsiders.com.