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How did Cal coach Justin Wilcox perform as the USC Trojans defensive coordinator?

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses.

USC v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

One of Justin Wilcox’s most prominent stops in his coaching career involved a two year stint with the USC Trojans. We conducted a Q&A with Nick Dempsey of Conquest Chronicles to identify the areas he’ll need to improve upon as the California Golden Bears head coach. This is Part I.

What was the hallmark of Wilcox's defenses at USC?

In theory Wilcox’s defense was supposed to be exotic, complicated, and difficult for opposing offenses to respond and adapt. This did not pan out for Wilcox at USC. Lack of physicality and ineptitude were sadly the hallmarks of the USC defense during the Wilcox tenure.

How much autonomy did Wilcox have to run the defense?

This one is also tough to answer because I’m sure you were aware (perhaps even delighted) that the coaching situation at USC was a bit of a turbulent mess under Steve Sarkisian and Justin Wilcox. With all of the unverified rumors, and unconfirmed reports that were a near constant back in those days many were left wondering if anyone was in charge of anything at all. During his time at USC and Washington, however, Wilcox worked for Sarkisian who has always been an offensive-minded guy it is reasonably safe to assume Wilcox had quite a bit of autonomy to run his defense while working for Sark.

What were your biggest frustrations with Wilcox as a coach?

When one student fails a test that is probably on the student. When almost all the students fail a test, that’s probably on the teacher. Based on his public statements while at USC Wilcox did not seem to understand this. After USC played Stanford in 2015 (during their first game that season not the Pac-12 championship, we’ll get to that nightmare in a second) the USC defense was torched by the Cardinal, this was just before Christian McCaffrey mania swept the nation. The most notable defensive failings that game were an abject lack of pressure on the QB, a secondary that looked confused and out of place, and a scheme that actually looked like the Trojans were playing prevent defense for most of the game.

In an interview shortly after that game rather than take responsibility and lay out his plan for correction Wilcox told the media the defensive needed to be more ‘vanilla’. This response left most people confused because what they saw on the field was a defense standing around and out of place almost as though they had no scheme at all. This of course left many wondering how exactly a defense could get more vanilla than that. Needless to say this response did not exactly endear him to many USC fans.

Even if he did, in fact, make the defense more vanilla (a questionable conclusion at best) it did not seem to help much. The rest of the 2015 season saw the USC defense give up 30 or more points in another 4 games after their first meeting with Stanford that year. Really the only time the defense looked good was when they could “out-talent” their opponent.

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

Really smart players tend to excel in his system. Guys whose football knowledge is solid. Guys who can make good reads and understand an offense’s weak points once they line up and adjust accordingly. The good news is that you do not necessarily need 5-star recruits to make this happen (though they certainly help). In other words you don’t have to become an NFL mill turning 5-star recruits into First Round draft picks year after year in order for his defense to work well, but you do need players with football smarts. This in theory should bode well for the Bears.

As far as a specific player goes, linebacker Cameron Smith comes to mind. Smith was a 4-star recruit out of high school, but his freshman campaign in 2015 was electric under Wilcox. Despite being a rookie, he thoroughly excelled in Wilcox’s scheme that year. He just always seemed to know where the ball was going to be and he would frequently get there before the offense even knew what hit him. The absolute pinnacle of Smith’s 2015 season, and a great best-case example of what Wilcox’s defense is supposed to do came when USC played Utah that year. In that game Smith had 3 interceptions including a pick six.

If the McCaffrey debacle in the Pac-12 championship game was Wilcox’s floor, then Cam Smith and the rest of the USC Defense’s performance against Utah was the ceiling. Check out these highlights and notice how it usually looked like there were open passing lanes but Smith always seemed to jump the routes.