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Breaking Down The Justin Wilcox Defense

Go Bears!

For the first time in a while, Cal has a HC with a defensive background. But what do we know about Justin Wilcox' defense? Words like “versatile” come up a lot, but what does that mean? In this post, I'll take a deeper look at the X’s and O’s of a Wilcox defense, and show you what background he’ll bring to his collaboration with DeRuyter and the rest of the staff. We'll see how his defense has roots in Bob Gregory's 4-3 (which was really a 4-2/4-4 in disguise), and how he shifted to a base 3-4 over time. Most importantly, we'll see what common features have shaped his defense no matter what personnel he's using.

The Early Years: Bob Gregory

In 1998, Justin Wilcox was a junior playing DB for Mike Belotti's Oregon Ducks. His new DB coach was Bob Gregory, who had been an assistant of Dan Hawkins' at Willamette University in the preceding seasons. As Gregory told the Seattle Times in a 2012 story, Wilcox was “the smartest player that I’ve ever been around. We moved him [to CB] his senior year and he didn’t give up one touchdown pass the whole year, and it was by great technique, understanding the game and playing smart.” Chris Petersen was another young position coach on that Oregon staff (working under an OC by the name of Jeff Tedford), and so it's no surprise that Petersen, Gregory, and Wilcox would move on to join up with Gregory's former boss Dan Hawkins at Boise State in 2001. By 2003 Wilcox had his first P5 job coaching LB's under Gregory and Tedford at Cal.

All of this means that Justin Wilcox, before he became Petersen's DC at Boise in 2006, had played or coached under Gregory in some capacity in six of the eight seasons from 1998-2005. He gave the NFL a shot as a player for a year (2000), and coached one year under a different DC at Boise State (2002), but that’s it. Since leaving Cal, he's only worked for offensive HC’s, and so Bob Gregory is practically the only defensive coach that he’s worked under. As we’ll see, this influence shows, especially in Wilcox’ early defenses. His defense has clearly changed over time, and he has obviously gotten stuff from his position coaches and from watching film and talking to other DC’s, but if we want to understand Justin Wilcox' defense, it's useful to start with Bob Gregory's pre-2008 defense.

If you've been a Cal fan for long, then you probably remember Gregory's switch to the 3-4 in 2008. But what was he running before that? The talk at the time was about his switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4, but Gregory's defense was really a kind of crypto 4-2. But what does that mean? To dig into this, let's compare the ways that Cal and USC got into eight-man fronts in our classic 2003 upset at Memorial Stadium. First, here's USC's pro-style 4-3 Under defense:

USC’s 4-3 Under

Cal is in the I-formation here, with the FB off-set to the strong side (the left). This means that Cal has four blockers to the left of C (the LG, LT, TE, and FB) but only two blockers to the right (the RG and RT). USC is playing a 4-3 Under front, which means that they have a real MLB in the middle of the formation (on the hash), a WLB stacked next to him to his left, and a SLB up near the LOS to his right. They then rotate their SS down to the strong side of the formation, giving them an eight-man front with four defenders to the strong side, three to the weakside, and one MLB right in the middle of it all:

4-3 Under by the Numbers

USC's goal here is to match numbers. By putting more blockers to the left side of the formation, our offense has created more gaps to that side, and so USC is loading up on that side to take away those extra gaps.

Now let's look at Cal's defense against USC's I-formation:

4-2 vs. I-Formation

Like USC, Cal is in an 8-man front here, but we're aligning in a pretty different way. Cal isn't playing with a true MLB in the center of the formation. Instead, we are playing a balanced alignment with an ILB to each side, and then an "overhang" or “spur” player (the SLB and Rover in the diagram below) outside on both edges:

4-2 by the Numbers

The "Rover" (Ro) in this defense is like a SS in terms of skillset, but in this front he's playing more like an OLB.

By putting an overhang player outside of each defensive end, we put ourselves in a very strong position to defend outside runs in either direction. These players are also well-aligned for getting underneath short, inside-breaking routes to the WR's, thereby taking away some of the offense's easiest throws. With these players on the edges, we can then use our six interior defenders (4 DL and 2 ILB's) to outnumber the five offensive linemen, plugging up inside runs and spilling the ball to the outside, where those overhang players can contain it and force things back inside to the pursuit. Here's a sort of conceptual rendering of this idea:

4-2 Gap Assignments

This style of play is similar to modern 4-2 defenses that play with 4 DL, 2 LB's, and three safeties. In 4-2 defenses of that sort, one of those three safeties plays as a true FS, and the other two play those spur/OLB positions. These defenses have a lot of similarities with older 4-4 defenses, which defend the run in a similar way but play with four true LB's and only one safety (the FS).

When we look at Wilcox' own defenses, we see similar alignments and run support patterns. Here’s a similar look from Tennessee’s 2011 game against Alabama:

4-2 vs. Alabama

And in 2015, we saw a similar look against some of Stanford's sets in the PAC-12 championship game:

4-2 vs. Stanford

In these images, we're seeing continuity between Gregory's base defense and Wilcox' in terms of how to align and defend the run.

The 3-4 and Wilcox' Base Defense

Against the spread, the true eight-man fronts that we've seen above are less practical, and it becomes increasingly valuable to have two safeties as dedicated pass defenders. The question then becomes, how do you adjust this base 4-2/4-4 to match these needs? You could always stay in the same personnel group but pull the Rover deep, as we see on this play against Virginia Tech:

4-3 vs. VT
4-3 vs. VT

This adjustment helps because you have two deep safeties to help account for the offense's four WR's. In the box, you're still able to outnumber their five offensive linemen with six defenders, and you still have the SLB as a strong outside run defender to the offense's right. By pulling the Rover deep, however, you've lost your overhang player to the offense's left. This adjustment thus gives up one of the strong points of the base 4-2/4-4 defense that we saw above.

This brings us to the 3-4, which Gregory himself often ran against spread formations:

Odd vs. VT
Odd vs. VT

This look lets you play a seven-man front and keeps those overhang players outside of the DE's. If you think of it this way, then the 3-4 was really a kind of "big nickel" adjustment to the 4-2/4-4, since it gives up one defender on the interior (a DT) in exchange for a fourth true LB. Obviously the spread has gotten incredibly popular over the last ten years, and so by making himself a base 3-4 guy Wilcox is, in a sense, just using this personnel grouping as a starting point, whereas Gregory used it in the early 2000's as a situational adjustment.

Of course, because Wilcox is basing out of the 3-4, there's more to it than there might have been in Gregory's situational 3-4, and it'll be interesting to dig into the tape more to get some ideas about which 3-4 coaches might have influenced Wilcox more recently. For example, Wilcox and Dave Aranda apparently talked a lot when they were at Boise/Hawaii, and last season Wilcox took over Aranda's job at Wisconsin, so it seems probable that Wilcox watched a lot of Aranda film as he transitioned to the 3-4. We could guess that a fair amount of his current defense comes from connections such as this.

Stunting and Blitzing

If you have those overhang players on the edge of your defense, then you want to make sure that you're taking advantage of what they give you. This often means stunting the DL inside and then bringing your overhang player off the edge. This disrupts blocking assignments and clogs up the middle of the formation, and looks something like this out of the 4-2:

4-2 Edge Blitz

And here's how Wilcox runs it from his base 3-4 personnel:

In general, I wouldn't say that this defense is blitz-heavy, but it's definitely stunt-heavy. What I mean by that is that it it doesn't bring a ton of people all the time, but it will often exchange gap assignments to create confusion. It's not a Todd Graham or Clancy Pendergast defense, but it also doesn't leave its front defenders stationary very often. And yes, this extends to some twists and the like against the passing game:


There's a ton to say about coverage in this defense, and so a lot of specifics might best be saved for later, more specialized posts. For now, the main point is that our coverage package will be more complex than what we were running under Dykes' DC's. There's also more of an effort to disguise coverages in Wilcox' (and DeRuyter’s) defense. Some of this happens on the field (DB's rotating to their assignments just before the snap), but some of it is also built into the playbook. For example, you've probably heard commentators talk about offenses using motion to diagnose man vs. zone coverage; they put a WR in motion and if a DB runs with him it's man, but if the DB stays put then it's zone. In Gregory's defense for sure, and from what I can see in Wilcox' recent defenses, CB's can travel with receivers in both man and zone coverages so that the QB can't know for sure what he's looking at.

One major change that we'll see in comparison to the last few years is that we'll be playing many more snaps with a single safety in the deep middle of the field (instead of the almost exclusively split-safety coverages that we ran under Kaufman and Buh). Wilcox and DeRuyter both play plenty of Cover-1 (man coverage with a safety deep) and Cover-3 (3-deep, 4-under zone coverage). This will give us more numbers in the box against the run, but can open up some vulnerabilities to the outside against runs and short passes. There can also be vulnerabilities vertically down the seams.


To wrap this up, I should say a few words about personnel. The three down linemen in Wilcox' base 3-4 are pretty much what you'd expect. The NT is your typical massive dude. At Wisconsin, NT Olive Sagapolu was listed at 6'2" and 340 lbs. At USC, Antwaun Woods was listed at 320 lbs. As for DE, from what I've seen it looks like Wilcox generally just has a left DE and a right DE, and doesn't flip them based on the hashmark or the offensive formation. Wilcox will often pinch the DE's inside, and so they're often lining up over OG's and, in that respect, are playing more like 4-3 DT's. A DE will also be involved in almost every stunt, so you do need some quickness and an ability to penetrate, which is another reason that it's good to think of them almost like 4-3 DT's.

The LB's, on the other hand, flip based on the strength of the formation and/or hashmark. Your two ILB's are going to be your most productive, best all-around LB's. One of these guys will probably be your leading tackler. These guys don't necessarily have to be huge, and haven't been that big in Wilcox' recent defenses. 235 lbs. seems to be fine for an ILB in this scheme. Remember that they're ideally playing behind a big DL with the DE's often pinched inside, and so they get a fair amount of protection from the OL. This means that they primarily have to be good at reading blocks and quickly getting through traffic to where they need to be to make the tackle. And of course, they need to be great, explosive tacklers when they get there.

The OLB's are more specialized. The weak/boundary OLB is closer to a 4-3 rush DE, and he should lead your team in sacks. At Wisconsin in 2016, this was T.J. Watt (6'5" 243 lbs. and 11.5 sacks). At USC this was a guy like Porter Gustin (6'5" 250 lbs. and 5.5 sacks in 2015) or J.R. Tavai (6'2" 250 lbs. and 7 sacks in 2014). The SOLB is really more of a safety/LB hybrid. This is where you put a guy like Sua Cravens or Shaq Thompson. This position usually plays in space to the wide side of the field and/or to multiple-receiver surfaces. He'll blitz off the edge a lot and will play a lot in coverage, so this should be your best all-around athlete and playmaker.

In the secondary, the CB's also look like they're just playing left and right, so there won't be a lot of skill differentiation between the two spots. The safeties flip based on the hashmark. The SS plays to the wide side of the field and is more of a space/coverage player, and the FS plays into the boundary and is usually more of a true deep safety.

Finally, the nickel defense will swap the NT for a nickel CB and slide the DE's inside. This creates a 4-man line, with the DE's playing on the interior and the OLB's playing on the edge like stand-up DE's (we saw this kind of nickel defense a lot with Pendergast). This personnel group will fit the run like a 4-3 team.


Those are the basics of Wilcox' defense. There is a lot more to talk about, so if you want to discuss any of this in more detail, let me know in the comments. Go Bears!