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

A chat with Bucky’s 5th Quarter.

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NCAA Football: Akron at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

The final step for Justin Wilcox on his way to being the Cal head coach was his time as Wisconsin defensive coordinator. Wilcox was there for a year before taking the Cal job, but the Badgers did have a solid season, making it to the Big Ten Championship game and winning the Cotton Bowl Classic.

We chatted with the Wisconsin SB Nation site Bucky’s 5th Quarter to learn more. Here’s what Jake Kocorowski (author of "Walk-On This Way, the Ongoing Legacy of the Wisconsin Football Walk-On Tradition”) had to say.

1. Were people surprised that Wilcox left after only a year? Or was it always assumed he would leave soon for a HC job?

I think people may have been surprised that it was a year, but many certainly don't blame him for taking a promotion to lead a football program. I think many would have felt jilted if Wilcox left for another Division 1, Power Five defensive coordinator position (like Dave Aranda did in becoming one of the highest paid assistants in the nation at LSU). Fans are sensitive to the "Wisconsin doesn't pay their assistants enough" narrative that Bret Bielema referred to when he took over at Arkansas, yet Wilcox was supposed to make $950,000 at UW in 2017.

I didn't hear anything personally about him leaving for a head coaching job before Sonny Dykes was let go, but I think many thought he'd stick around for maybe another season or so while former walk-on/All-American/10-year NFL vet Jim Leonhard became more seasoned as a college assistant before handing him the reigns to the defense (he's now the defensive coordinator, and should do an amazing job).

2. How much did Wilcox change the culture/scheme in only a year, vs building on what was already in place?

Wilcox kept the 3-4 scheme that Aranda initially implemented during the 2016 season. This article from early in the 2016 season maybe best described his approach, at least at the beginning of the year, in being "tactical" according to inside linebacker Jack Cichy. Many players at the type referenced not much was changing with the defense. Like any good defensive coordinator or assistant coach, he utilized his players' strengths and molded the scheme after their capabilities.

Many thought Wisconsin, with losing Aranda and its difficult 2016 schedule, would regress in its defense. The Badgers finished the season in the top 10 in the following categories: No. 3 in the nation in rushing defense (98.8 yards per game), No. 4 in scoring defense (15.6 points per game), No.4 in third-down conversion defense (27.9 percent allowed), No. 7 in total defense (301.4 yards per game), No. 10 in passing efficiency defense (106.9).

3. What was the hallmark of Wilcox's defenses?

Having only seen him run a defense for his only season at Wisconsin, I would probably look back at what was previously mentioned. He played to his player's strengths, and that definitely helped in a run defense that stifled opposing offenses. With the Badgers' personnel, he usually ran the base 3-4 with some modifications here and there facing standard 21, 12 or other similar personnel, while against most spread teams, a 2-4-5 nickel look was used most of the time (it did vary depending each opponent and their skill players).

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

With the one year at Wisconsin and not previously studying his stops at USC, Washington, Tennessse, and Boise State, I can't say how consistent he was with what he did in Madison last season.

I would say he trusted those who filled in for key contributors. The Badgers' defense lost key contributors throughout the year, including starting inside linebackers Chris Orr and Cichy, along with nickelback Natrell Jamerson. In filled former walk-on Ryan Connelly at backer and Lubern Figaro as the third cornerback, and the defense really didn't miss a beat. Connelly might be one of my favorite walk-on stories in UW's storied tradition, and he made key plays against LSU, Nebraska and Penn State. Figaro, with help from Leonhard as the new secondary coach, really stepped up from his sophomore slump and made plays. Conor Sheehy, one of the starting defensive ends who rotated with Chikwe Obaish and Alec James, slid to nose tackle when Olive Sagapolu was lost for five games due to a broken right hand.

5. How much autonomy did Wilcox have to run the defense?

Paul Chryst is an offensive minded coach. I believe Wilcox had a fair share of autonomy in running the defense, as seen in this piece by the UW student newspaper The Daily Cardinal last spring; however, like all things, the head coach does get a final say.

6. What were your biggest frustrations with Wilcox as a coach?

Honestly, there wasn't much frustration outside of the Big Ten Championship game where Wisconsin's secondary imploded. The Badgers' defensive backs were winning a lot of 50-50 balls throughout the season (they tied for second in the nation with 22 interceptions, 16 coming from the defensive backs). That game, they were without Alec James and Conor Sheehy due to injury, so the pass rush wasn't necessarily there despite having a 28-14 lead at halftime. In the second half, Penn State's players made more plays and exploded for what would be an aberration of what was a solid, overachieving defense.

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

Recruiting-wise, it's really hard to gauge what he did at Wisconsin in a little under a year. UW's motto for football is "Tough, Smart, Dependable." May sound cliche, but it's formula that's helped the Badgers start the Chryst era off with 21 wins in two seasons.

I will say the results of the defense this past season led to them securing, despite a smaller class, the commitments of JUCO outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel (who could immediately contribute in 2017) and some possible contributors down the line in Madison Cone, Faion Hicks and Scott Nelson. Most of the other assistants on the staff primarily recruited those players rather than Wilcox, I believe.

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

Wilcox's best performance may have come against LSU (as a whole game) and probably the second half of the regular season finale against Minnesota. The Badgers were not really supposed to shock the world against the Tigers like they did, and though Leonard Fournette went over 100 yards rushing, they contained him enough to make LSU's passing game try to beat them (they, in fact, did not). The defense only allowed 257 yards in the game. I covered it at Lambeau Field for B5Q, and I cannot tell you how the stadium exploded when the clock struck zero. Have not seen the fan base that amped up for a post-game celebration since I started covering the team in 2013.

The first half against the Gophers was disastrous, allowing 17 points and 226 yards of offense. Minnesota finished with only 286, as Wisconsin forced four Mitch Leidner interceptions in the second half and sacked him five times that turned into a 31-17 win in sealing a Big Ten West division title.

The most frustrating game was the collapse in the Big Ten Championship game. Many felt Penn State would be a challenge with their explosive playmakers, and 435 yards later (384 through the air by Trace McSorley), the Nittany Lions punched their way to a Rose Bowl berth. With a trip to Pasadena (and the outside chance of the College Football Playoff), it was an uncharacteristic outing for the defense that didn't win those 50-50 balls as noted earlier.

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

It was just one year, but there are a few players who could hear their names called in the NFL Draft this year, most notably T.J. Watt (11.5 sacks, 17.5 tackles for loss, consensus All-Big Ten and several All-American nods), Vince Biegel (four sacks, six tackles for loss) and cornerback Sojourn Shelton (four interceptions, 12 break-ups).

There was also the inside linebackers like T.J. Edwards, who led the team in tackles for the second straight year, Cichy, and Connelly--Wilcox coached this position in his brief stint at Wisconsin. The secondary really came on throughout the season (safety Leo Musso had 74 tackles and a team-leading five interceptions...he also tested well at Wisconsin's Pro Day last week) and overachieved as mentioned before with their interceptions and overall play in 2016, and a lot of that has to do with Leonhard taking over the secondary.