Joining Steve Sarkisian at the University of Washington following the 2011 season, up-and-coming defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox helped transform the Huskies’ defense in the virtual blink of an eye, taking it from an underachieving group that allowed an average of 453.3 yards per game (No. 106 in the FBS) the season before his arrival to a cohesive unit that surrendered a respectable 357.4 yards per game (No. 31 in the FBS) in 2012.
Fast forward to the present, and Wilcox finds himself in command of another fresh defensive bunch under Sarkisian. But this time, it’s at USC, and the situation that he’s walked into couldn’t be more different.
The Trojans made tremendous strides under first-year defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and his "52" system in 2013, ranking No. 13 nationally in total defense (335.2 yards allowed per game) and No. 1 in red-zone defense (62.8 percent). As such, there’s sure to be a fair amount of pressure on Wilcox to keep that unit pointed on its forward path. The former Oregon defensive back is excited by the opportunity -- along with the weapons at his disposal -- and he already has a clear vision of what it’s going to take to meet expectations.
“It’s great,” Wilcox said last week when he addressed the media inside the John McKay Center. “They played for good coaches, they’re good players, and it’s our job to put them in position to be successful. We need to play to our strengths [and] we need to have enough on our menu to play against the teams that we’re going to see -- the spread teams, the two-back teams -- so we have complements, and we can make it difficult for the offenses.”
That menu that Wilcox refers to is filled with a wide array of packages and alignments, and it’s that variety that has been one of the hallmarks of his defenses.
When asked last week, Wilcox labeled the new scheme that the Trojans will employ as a “3-4 multiple front defense,” and he was quick to point out that “multiple” means just that, and it's still yet to be determined based on what he’s able to take away during the spring in terms of personnel.
“We’re going to play 3-4 fronts, we’re going to play four-down fronts – you have both,” said Wilcox, who previously was defensive coordinator at Boise State (2006-09) and Tennessee (2010-11). “As we get into spring football and through fall, basically, we’ll have a menu that we’ll draw from, and depending on what we’re good at and who we’re playing against, that will dictate how much we play of each.”
Teaming with fellow UW coaching transplants Keith Heyward (defensive backs) and Peter Sirmon (linebackers), as well as the recently added Chris Wilson (defensive line), Wilcox and the new USC defensive staff will begin mixing and matching the current players into their system before getting a first-hand look at how it all meshes this spring. But having been on campus for almost a month now, he’s already had some time to start breaking down film to get an idea of what he’ll be working with, and so far he’s encouraged by what he’s seen.
It's a group that recently received a huge boost from announcements by safety/cornerback Josh Shaw and linebacker Hayes Pullard – whom Wilcox called the team’s “biggest recruit” – that they will return for their senior seasons. He is particularly impressed with what he inherits along the defensive line, where 2013 ESPN.com first-team All-American Leonard Williams is the headliner.
“I think you’ve got some big guys up front,” said Wilcox, who directed a Huskies defense that ranked No. 4 in the FBS last fall in sacks (3.15 per game). “You’ve got some 4i techniques, you’ve got some nose guards with a lot of mass, you’ve got some edge guys that can rush the quarterback and drop into coverage. In the secondary, some guys that have played a lot of snaps are coming back, which is always key. So, our job is to kind of find out what we’re best at, and also what we need in a schematic standpoint to play all of the teams we’re going to play and put our guys in the best position we can to be successful.”
With so many potential looks, Wilcox ideally would like to rotate players in and out at a heavy click. For a USC squad that played with as few as 13 players on defense at times in 2013, that could prove to be a challenge. Wilcox said that won’t have an impact on the overriding goal.
“We’d like to have 18, 19, 20 … is that going to happen? I don’t know,” Wilcox said. “But we’re never going to use depth as an excuse for how we play. We’re going to go in and prepare the guys that we need to prepare to play the game, and that’s the way it goes.”
It’s obvious that there is still a fair amount of uncertainty that won’t begin to be resolved until the Trojans hit the field for the start of spring ball on March 11. The most pressing concern for Wilcox, in addition to recruiting, is getting to know the athletes that he’ll be working with on a personal level. That process is well underway as players like Williams have already become fixtures in his office during the week.
“It’s great to start to build that relationship,” Wilcox said. “It’s important.”
With so much on his plate, the next seven weeks leading up to those spring practices is sure to fly by. So far, though, Wilcox has given every indication that he’s prepared to meet every challenge headed his way -- not to mention those lofty expectations.
“When you coach or play at USC, there’s expectations and pressure, but I know Coach Sark, our players, our staff, [and] the expectations are going to be very high in the building, too,” Wilcox said. “So, we don’t really talk about it that much because that’s just the way it is. That’s USC football.”