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Cal coach Justin Wilcox had his fair share of issues as USC defensive coordinator

Part II of our Q&A!

USC v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

As most of us know, Wilcox did not have the greatest time as the USC Trojans defensive coordinator. We continue our 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.

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

It is tough to gauge this as he only had a couple of seasons at USC. When it became clear that his schemes were not working he did not have a ton of time to adjust. I’ll say this for him, his defenses tend to rely heavily on making good reads and smart plays and then getting hyper aggressive once you’ve found the weak spot on the offense. Pulling this off with college kids who in theory are only supposed to have a small handful of hours to prepare every week is tough to do.

It is also likely that Wilcox learned a ton of tough lessons after his struggles at USC and applied them to his short time at Wisconsin. The Badgers’ defense had plenty of talent from Dave Aranda’s time there and given the success of the Wisconsin defense during Wilcox’s 1 season it seems reasonable to conclude that he was able to adapt and design a plan that worked for the talent he had there.

How was Wilcox as a recruiter? What were his biggest recruits?

If a college football team was a company Wilcox would be in R&D not sales. Recruiting has never really been where Wilcox’s strengths lie and he has benefitted greatly from working with great recruiters like Steve Sarkisian and Tee Martin. I’m not sure who Wilcox has hired to join his staff in Berkeley but I have to believe, or at least hope for Cal’s sake that at least one of those assistants is a great recruiter. Frankly, he was unable to get a ton of talent and quality depth on the defense. He left the cupboard pretty empty, particularly on the defensive front, a problem that USC recruiting is just now starting to overcome.

Relative to expectations, how well was Wilcox able to recruit to his defense?

Given that both Tee Martin and Steve Sarkisian were the ace recruiters for USC expectations were pretty low for Wilcox on the recruiting front. Wilcox also replaced Clancy Pendergast (who then also replaced Wilcox). Pendergast not only ran a 5-2 scheme that had some key strategic differences to Wilcox’s scheme but also some pretty large philosophical ones as well. If you are big into the nerdier side of football This article on Wilcox and this article on Pendergast go into great detail as to what those difference are. In short, that kind of overhaul was inevitably going to take some time that Wilcox never really had. In fairness to Wilcox his short time frame to get it turned around was largely due to factors beyond his control. The fact that Sark fired the popular Pendergast and replaced him with Wilcox did not help matters much either.

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

There were not a ton of highlights for Wilcox while at USC. For those highlights you may want to Check in with the folks at Bucky’s Fifth Quarter of UW Dawg Pound as he fared much better with Washington and Wisconsin.

As far as games where he struggled, well, you could write the whole article on that but I’ll keep focused on his just his final game at USC because it seems to so perfectly encapsulate his time with the Trojans. This of course was the Pac-12 Championship in 2015 when Christian McCaffrey, Kevin Hogan and the rest of the Stanford offense flatly embarrassed the Trojans defense. Given the reporting surrounding this game it is near impossible to blame this result on the players. This was the infamous game in which the media could hear the Trojans’ defensive coaching staff screaming and swearing repeatedly because of how bad things were getting. It got so bad that the USC athletic staff had to interfere.

The absolute lowest point might have been when Clay Helton straight up asked Wilcox who is in charge of covering McCaffrey and Wilcox replied that he didn’t know. Seriously, he reportedly said he did not even know who was supposed to cover Heisman Trophy candidate Christian McCaffrey. Now look, I get that Christian McCaffrey is probably not the most popular guy in Berkeley, or Los Angeles for that matter but we can all agree that the guy is talented. If McCaffrey had just out-played a USC defense that executed a solid plan in that game then there is no shame in that. McCaffrey torched a lot of defenses. But this was the second time he’s seen McCaffrey that season, they had a whole season worth of tape on the guy, and by December 2015 we’d been hearing ad nauseam about the greatness of McCaffrey and despite all of this they had literally no idea what to do about him.

I don’t normally like playing armchair coach but given all of the above facts it seems that in preparing for that game the first question I’d ask myself is “what’s our answer for McCaffrey?”. To not have an answer for that question is absolutely baffling. This was an unmitigated coaching failure that you could not blame on the Sarkisian mess, the media spotlight, players not adapting to a new scheme nor Clay Helton’s relative inexperience as a head coach. To the surprise of no one in Troy, Wilcox was fired the next day along with most of the defensive staff.