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What was Cal coach Justin Wilcox like as Tennessee defensive coordinator?

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Learn more about Wilcox’s time in the SEC.

Justin Wilcox
Cal Athletics

We continue our tour of California Golden Bears coach Justin Wilcox and his college football coaching road. After his first stop at Boise State, Wilcox got his first major Power 5 coaching job as the Tennessee Volunteers defensive coordinator. Wilcox would spend two years at Tennessee before moving onto Washington and taking the same position there.

We chatted with Will Shelton at Rocky Top Talk.

Considering the pure chaos of the Kiffin tenure in Tennessee, how much can you actually take away from Wilcox's time in Knoxville?

I think the 2010 team really overachieved just to get to 6-6 after the Kiffin fiasco, and Wilcox's defense was a big part of that. The Vols started 2-6 but held their last four opponents to 14 points or less to get bowl eligible. It's important to note that in his two years and 25 games at Tennessee, the Vols faced seven teams who finished 2010 or 2011 in the AP Top 10 and three teams who played for the BCS title (2010 Oregon, 2011 Alabama and LSU). I would still call his second season the worst Tennessee team of the post-1992 expansion era, but I think most understood what the Vols were up against at that point with Phillip Fulmer's recruits mostly gone and about half of Lane Kiffin's having left the program by then.

Even following 14 years of John Chavis and a season with Monte Kiffin, Wilcox was viewed as an asset throughout his time in Knoxville. When Derek Dooley hired him, Dooley had just gone 4-8 at Louisiana Tech and Wilcox had just led a 14-0 defense at Boise State. He was only 32, but some of us were like, "Are you sure our defensive coordinator wasn't the better head coaching candidate?" We weren't wrong. Wilcox turned down the Texas DC job at the end of 2010 in what we believed was a really good sign. But then he left to take the Washington DC job, a sub-lateral move at the end of 2011 to get off Dooley's Titanic.

What was the hallmark of Wilcox's defenses?

Tennessee isn't the best place to answer this, because especially his second team was about trying to bend without breaking. Three of the top five tacklers in 2011 were true freshmen. He did put a young Malik Jackson on the path to eventual Super Bowl fame; he was second-team All-SEC in 2011.

How consistent was Wilcox in his scheme, year to year, vs adjusting to the talent he had available?

I think we would've liked to have seen Wilcox be able to coach the freshmen on Tennessee's 2011 defense when they were juniors and was really able to do something with them. But again, the Vols had to do a lot of vanilla and just trying to keep the ball in front of them during his time in Knoxville.

How much autonomy did Wilcox have to run the defense?

Good question. Tennessee retained LB coach Lance Thompson from the Kiffin staff with not just Wilcox but Dooley being told they needed to keep him and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney in the fold. So starting from that place he couldn't have had total autonomy, but I'm not sure how much Dooley stuck his nose in his business. The chemistry on those staffs was notoriously bad.

What were your biggest frustrations with Wilcox as a coach?

None specific to him that didn't ultimately go to Dooley or were simply the understandable byproduct of so much turnover before he got here.

What do you consider was Wilcox's best performance as a defensive coordinator? Were there any games he noticeably struggled?

In 2010 Tennessee went to LSU and should have won, getting four turnovers in what should have been a 14-10 win before the Vols infamously ran 13 players onto the field on the final play, giving LSU another chance from the one yard line which they converted to win 16-14. By November 2011 the wheels were coming off and the Vols lost 49-7 at #5 Arkansas, giving up 499 yards and 8.75 yards per play in the biggest Tennessee loss in more than 30 years.

Who were the players that developed and excelled the best in Wilcox's schemes?

Aside from Malik Jackson, those freshmen from 2011 - linebackers Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson along with safety Brian Randolph - went on to have really solid careers at Tennessee. Maggitt had season-ending injuries in 2012 and 2015 that ultimately cost him but had 11 sacks in 2014. Johnson had 100+ tackles three years in a row from 2012-14 before a sexual assault charge ended his career. Again, we never got to see what he could really do with the combination of talent and experience Tennessee normally enjoys.