After departing the California Golden Bears in 2005 to become a defensive coordinator, Justin Wilcox has bounced around the college football world on his way to becoming the Cal coach. Four different conferences, five different teams, over a decade of coaching defense!
Wilcox’s first two defenses were in Boise State under Chris Petersen, and then Tennessee under Derek Dooley. His next stop was the Washington Huskies, where he spent two seasons with Steve Sarkisian before both of them moved on down to the USC Trojans.
We chatted with Ryan Priest and Jeff Gorman of UW Dawg Pound to learn more about Wilcox’s time in Washington and the culture he helped instill that laid the groundwork for the dominant Washington defense you see today. Our Q&A is below!
What was the hallmark of Wilcox's defenses?
Ryan Priest: For Washington fans, it's impossible to define Wilcox's defenses without comparing them to the Nick Holt dumpster fire defenses that preceded them. That being said, the single most defining characteristics of Wilcox's defenses at Washington was vastly improved secondary play. In his first season as UW's defensive coordinator, the Huskies improved from yielding 285 passing yards per game (11th in the Pac-12) in 2011 to 197 yards (second in the conference) in 2012. Every newly hired defensive coordinator in college football history has spoken at some point of bringing in "an aggressive, attacking mentality," but Wilcox actually implemented it. Players like Marcus Peters, Greg Ducre and Sean Parker made huge gains with Wilcox at the helm, and helped pave the way for Sark's hiring by USC and Chris Petersen's subsequent arrival in Seattle.
Jeff Gorman: It's hard to say, but the immediate improvement in year one after Nick Holt was certainly something I will remember. The Huskies went from completely awful to at least solid in every area in Wilcox's first season. However, the secondary showed the most immediate improvement, and was a hallmark of his time at UW. They were always the best unit on the defense and usually one of the best units on the team.
How consistent was Wilcox in his scheme, year to year, vs adjusting to the talent he had available?
Ryan Priest: That's hard to say, because Wilcox was only at Washington for two years before he took off with Sark to USC. But there's little question that he maximized the talent that future NFL players like Peters and Ducre brought to the table.
Jeff Gorman: He was only at UW for two years so there wasn't a lot of turnover, but it sure seemed like he adjusted to what he had and maximized the talent on hand.
How much autonomy did Wilcox have to run the defense?
Ryan Priest: From our perspective, it certainly appeared that Washington's defense was entirely Wilcox's province during his time with the Huskies. Steve Sarkisian spent the vast majority of his time working with the quarterbacks and his offensive coordinators, and left defensive adjustments and coaching to the people he had hired to do just that.
Jeff Gorman: It's hard to gauge, but Sark wasn't really a defensive coach. From what I could tell he handed the keys of the defense to Wilcox and let him do his thing.
How was Wilcox as a recruiter? Who were his biggest commits?
Ryan Priest: The 2012 and 2013 classes included a number of defensive stars, none more important than Shaq Thompson. Defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi gets the lion's share of credit in most discussions when debating how the Huskies flipped Thompson from the Golden Bears, but a huge factor was the presence of Wilcox, who previously coached Shaq's older brother Syd'Quan at Cal. Wilcox's other notable recruits included Elijah Qualls, Azeem Victor, Joe Mathis, Kevin King and Keishawn Bierria, all of whom are likely to eventually become contributors at the professional level.
Jeff Gorman: Wilcox is never going to be the best recruiter on a staff, but he's certainly no slouch. In 2012 he got Shaq Thompson to flip from Cal, though that was really Tosh Lupoi's exploit. Still, Wilcox's reputation as a defensive mastermind helped. The 2013 class included the lowly rated Azeem Victor, and 3 star Kieshawn Bierria. Both of them turned into some of the best LBs in the conference, so he was able to identify overlooked talent.