Unleashed: Justin Wilcox, Washington's Favorite Duck
Oct. 3, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - I don't know if the Huskies are going to slow down Oregon this time or not.
I do know they have the most motivated, connected guy they've ever had to get it done, though.
UW defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox doesn't just know Oregon. Heck, he's as Oregonian as a Duck and fir tree put together.
He and his older brother Josh are sons of NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Dave Wilcox, a former star at Oregon. They grew up on the family farm about 25 minutes from Autzen Stadium. Justin was a ball boy as a kid for UO games in the 1980s. He then was a Pac-10 All-Academic defensive back for the Ducks, the same team for which Josh played tight end. Justin even moved furniture for a long-standing, family owned store in downtown Eugene for a year before he got into coaching in 2001.
That Oregon-centric pedigree can be enough to get you stopped at the border and denied entry into our state this time of year.
But this week, Wilcox is the most beloved Duck in Washington. And given this heated rivalry, that's sayin' somethin'.
He has resurrected UW's defense just four games into running it. Plus, he has beaten Oregon twice before, while scheming against it three times in the last four years as a defensive coordinator.
In 2008 while at Boise State, Wilcox's unranked Broncos forced four Oregon turnovers and upset the 17th-ranked Ducks. In 2009, Wilcox's defense held LaMichael James and Oregon to just eight points and 31 yards rushing while winning in Boise. In 2010, his first season running Tennessee's defense, Wilcox's Volunteers lost to James, Darron Thomas and UO.
So what does his return home to Autzen Saturday night for the 7:30 p.m. showdown between his new, 23rd-ranked Huskies (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12) and his old, No. 2 Ducks (5-0, 2-0) mean to the 35-year old?
"Personally? I mean, I went to school there and am proud to be from there," he said Tuesday. "But my allegiance is with the Huskies and this team."
Washington is sure glad of that.
Wilcox has the Huskies playing more aggressively in the secondary. He has orchestrated multiple personnel switches at linebacker and safety. He has moved players around like chess pieces in various packages depending on the opponent's personnel or even a particular down and distance.
Yet all the while his players say he has simplified their jobs and held them supremely accountable, thereby raising pride as well as performance.
Playing Wilcox's way, UW is allowing the fewest first downs per game in the conference, 15. It allowed 23 per game last season. Washington is allowing 19.8 points per game this season, down from 35.9 last year. These Huskies are second to Arizona State in the Pac-12 in total defense, giving up an average of 315 yards per game. Last season they allowed an average of 453 yards.
In the last week, Wilcox has gotten national props for drawing up the plan that held eighth-ranked Stanford to 65 yards rushing and 13 points in the Huskies' buoying upset. The Cardinal had romped for 446 yards on the ground and 65 points against Washington last October.
Of course, that was B.W. (Before Wilcox).
THE "SILENT ASSASSIN"
Rather than pushing his system onto the Huskies when he arrived with three new defensive assistants in January, Wilcox assessed with coach Steve Sarkisian what each returning player's strengths and weaknesses were.
Wilcox, who was also California's linebackers coach under old Oregon colleague Jeff Tedford from 2003-05, then molded his versatile schemes around those strengths and weaknesses.
"Justin's taken those ideas and run with it," Sarkisian said. "He's done a tremendous job. He's an excellent coach, a great communicator and teacher - not only to the players but to the assistant coaches, and those guys relaying the messages and the details of it all."
Asked what prompted UW's coach to contact Wilcox about this job within two days of the Huskies' 67-56 loss to Baylor in December's Alamo Bowl, Sarkisian cited Wilcox's ability to adapt and create.
"What I appreciate about Justin is the versatility that he presented at each of his places - what he came from at Cal to what he implemented at Boise to then what he played when he was in Tennessee, to now and what he's doing with us. They're almost three different defenses," Sarkisian said. "That's a sign of a good coach, a guy who has the ability to implement a defense and schemes to fit the personnel and the team that he has and the styles of offense that he'll be faced with."
Wilcox agrees this UW defense is unlike anything he crafted at Boise State - which upset Oklahoma in the memorable Fiesta Bowl to cap an undefeated season on his defensive watch - and at Tennessee, which became a defense ranked 28th in the country in 2011 while he started four freshmen.
"It's different, because we have different people and we are playing different types of offenses," he said. "We kind of have some guys who are in a little bit of that `hybrid' role. So we are trying to use them each week in places we feel best suits that offense."
He's turned tall, rangy Travis Feeney from a backup safety into a starting linebacker - then had Feeney back as a run-stopping safety again versus surprised Stanford. Last week he also had Talia Crichton and Josh Shirley roaming the middle of the defense as linebackers on some downs.
He's also created a hybrid safety-linebacker position to get fast, hard-hitting freshman Shaq Thompson into the starting lineup. UW essentially starts five defensive backs and two linebackers in its base defense.
Wilcox describes his complex maneuvering simply.
"It was to try to get our best 11 guys on the field, and what can we do schematically that gets those guys on the field in a position to make some plays," he said.
When he realized Tuesday morning he was about to be asked about his Oregon roots that run as deep as an evergreen's, Wilcox smiled, sighed and initially rolled his eyes at the focus being on him instead of his players or their task this weekend.
I then made the mistake of asking how a Duck beats the Ducks.
"That has a lot less to do with it than how good they are on offense and what we need to do defensively to slow them down," he said, not smiling. "They are obviously as fast a team as there is in the country. They score a lot of points. They score them in bunches. They run a lot of plays. They play with a lot of tempo."
Asked if they are faster than the previous Oregon teams he's faced, Wilcox said, "I mean, warp and mach, what's faster?
"They are a great challenge for us."
Something tells me Wilcox is up to it. That he is going to unveil a special tweak or three Saturday night at Autzen to show his home folks how well he can coach. That there is a fire he'd love to unleash in his backyard.
Monday I asked Sean Parker, the junior safety to whom Wilcox has given new freedom to attack the line of scrimmage, how he would characterize his new coordinator's personality.
"To me, I feel like he's a silent assassin," Parker said. "He doesn't get mad quick, but when he's mad you will feel it."
Wilcox grinned and looked embarrassed when he heard that.
"I think coaching is having expectations, holding them to it," he said. "When they do something wrong, you teach them how to do it right. If there are repetitive mistakes, you better look at either yourself and how you are teaching it, or the player and his mental intensity; are they not paying attention enough, like they should? Each situation is different, and each guy is approached in probably a different way."
FROM FARMER TO FURNITURE MOVER TO POTENTIAL COACH IN ... FRANCE?
When the Huskies' charter jet lands Friday night at Mahlon Sweet Field outside Eugene, Wilcox will be nine miles from his hometown of Junction City (population 5,392, according to the 2010 U.S. Census).
Dave Wilcox, a seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker during his 11 seasons playing for the San Francisco 49ers, settled there when he was done playing in 1974, to a 300-acre farm off of Oregon Highway 99.
How tough was Justin and Josh's dad? He was nicknamed "The Intimidator." And he missed just one game in 11 years.
Dad was as smart a player as he was rugged. He prided himself on being a thinking, well-prepared linebacker. Entering this decade, his 14 career interceptions were still the most in 49ers' history for a linebacker.
Josh, now 38, played for Oregon from 1993-96 and had an 11-game NFL career with the New Orleans Saints in `98-99. He now hosts a three-hour afternoon sports-talk radio show on 1080AM in Portland. He interviewed his "little bro," as he called him, for a cable television show that aired Monday down there.
Despite the Hall-of-Fame pedigree in football, Justin wasn't destined for the sport because of his father.
He was destined for farming.
"See, he was done playing when I was born. I grew up in Junction City. He was a farmer. That's what we grew up knowing. The football thing was an afterthought," Justin says. "It was, `Oh, yeah, Dad used to play football.' But we never sat around talking about football.
"We had corn and wheat and cabbage, bush beans, you name it. I moved pipe and stuff. I loved it. But it was hard work. I mean, it's labor. But if you played sports you didn't have to have a job. So I played sports every single season."
He laughed at himself for being more shrewd than athletically gifted.
His first way into Autzen Stadium came through Joe Schaffeld. Oregon's long-time defensive line coach was a friend of Wilcox's family, and he asked Dave Wilcox's boy if he wanted to work Oregon's home games.
He did that for three or four years.
"Drew Bledsoe. Troy Aikman. Rodney Peete. Steve Broussard. I remember all those guys," he said.
"I remember the Huskies would come in. It was in the day they had the BIG shoulder pads. And they were big people. They were a massive team. I always remember that. The Huskies would come out on the field and it was, `Oh, my goodness! Look at these guys!' They were the bullies of the conference.
"I was really fortunate to do that. That was a big deal, for a kid to be able to see all of that."
Wilcox didn't just shuttle the ball to and from the officials from the sidelines, like ball boys do today. He had to comically track down field-goal and PAT attempts among the stadium's noted zanies.
"They used to not have the nets (behind the goal posts)," he said. "They would kick the ball and I'd have to chase it around Autzen, because they would catch the field goal and then throw it all around."
Soon, he was playing for his dad's and brother's Ducks. As a safety and cornerback at Oregon, Wilcox was a roommate of current Huskies linebackers coach Peter Sirmon, who came from Tennessee with Wilcox in January. Wilcox played on four bowl teams in four seasons at UO through 1999. He won a team inspiration award for overcoming a knee injury that ruined his 1996 season.
He then had a brief career with the NFL's Washington Redskins.
"'Brief' is an overstatement. Six practices," he says of his training camp cameo with the `Skins. "I wasn't very good. That was probably six too many."
He had an anthropology degree -- and then did nothing related to anthropology.
"I was moving furniture," he says, grinning. "Yeah. M Jacobs Furniture in Eugene.
"And then I was trying to find a real job. I had interviewed at Salomon Smith Barney. I had interviewed at Nike. I had worked at Smith Barney for two summers as an intern. But I was not ready to do that 9-to-5, suit and tie.
"I mean, this is dressed up, you know," Wilcox said, stepping back to model his black Huskies hoodie over gray team sweatpants and under a white fitted W cap.
In 2001, Wilcox was on his way to Provance, France, off the Mediterranean and adjacent to Italy, to coach a football club team for $500 a month.
"It was going to be cool," he said. "I thought, `I'm young. I'm going to go do that.'"
But then Dan Hawkins called to change his life.
Hawkins had been promoted to the head job at Boise State a year earlier, when Dirk Koetter left for Arizona State. Hawkins had hired Wilcox's position coach at Oregon, Bob Gregory, onto his first staff at Boise State. They wanted Wilcox to join them with the Broncos as a graduate assistant.
Wilcox said yes. His first pay?
"$440. Me and Bryan Harsin," Wilcox said of the former Boise State quarterback who was a GA with him in 2001; Harsin is now the co-offensive coordinator at Texas. "We sold pizzas at summer camp to make a little extra. Yep, we were slingin' pizzas.
"I'll tell you what: Selling pizzas, that's a racket, now. I'm telling you, pizza, for what it costs to make? They would sell them to us for whatever - they were cheap. And then we'd sell them to the campers.
"I'm telling you, pizza is a racket."
Wilcox says he never had a second thought about leaving behind furniture moving, a potential career in finance, fleecing kids on pizza deals or a tour in the southeast of France as a 20-something bachelor - all for $440 a month plus a Boise State coaches' shirt.
"No, because I was really enjoying what I was doing," he said.
BEYOND HIS WILDEST DREAMS
Eleven years, three promotions and three coordinator jobs later, Wilcox signed an agreement with UW in January. He is earning $750,000 this year, $350,000 in base pay and $400,000 in supplemental pay. His agreement with Washington calls for $800,000 guaranteed in 2013 and $850,000 in 2014.
Wilcox earned $700,000 in 2011 as Tennessee's defensive coordinator.
It all blows his mind.
"This business now has become ... I mean, you know, people get paid a lot of money," he said. "I never dreamed about that. That wasn't what I was in to. It's great, don't get me wrong. But I never knew I'd be here, in this role. I could be coaching at Carroll College in Montana and enjoying it just as much.
"I'm very fortunate to be here, don't get me wrong. I love it, and it's an honor. But that's not really why I got into it."
He got into coaching to be like Chris Petersen, who was Oregon's wide receivers coach under Mike Bellotti through the late 1990s when Wilcox played for the Ducks. Petersen succeeded Hawkins leading Boise State and made Wilcox his defensive coordinator in 2006.
Wilcox wanted to be like Nick Aliotti, the Ducks' current defensive coordinator who led the defense Wilcox played on at Oregon in 1999. Like Tedford, the offensive coordinator on the Oregon staff from 1998 through 2001. And Gregory, who brought his old Ducks DB to Cal to be a linebackers coach seven years ago.
"Right towards the end of my college career I played for a couple guys who I really enjoyed the way they coached, their approach to the players and how they really enjoyed being out there. And that made me think for the first time, `Man, I really think I would enjoy doing that,'" Wilcox said.
"I've been fortunate, as much as anything, just being around the right folks."
Now -- especially this week, heading into Autzen Stadium to meet the supersonic Ducks -- the Huskies feel very fortunate having Wilcox around them.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.