SEATTLE — The blaring noise rising from Washington’s practice field could almost be heard well north by Drumheller Fountain on Tuesday, pushing past the din of Husky Stadium construction and traffic congestion on Montlake Boulevard.
The Huskies cranked up the fake screams in preparation for this weekend’s game at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., against the second-ranked Oregon Ducks, replacing for much of the morning the usual mix of hip-hop and rock music that pervades practice.
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox hopes his defense can silence the real clamor Saturday.
Wilcox’s defense is the main cause for No. 23 Washington’s 3-1 start. After the Huskies allowed a school-record 467 points last season, they fired defensive coordinator Nick Holt and brought in the 35-year-old Wilcox.
Wilcox previously ran defenses at Boise State and Tennessee. He faced Oregon’s vibrant offense at each. In 2009, the Broncos’ defense under Wilcox held Oregon to eight points, leaving Ducks running back LeGarrette Blount fighting mad.
A 2010 visit from the Ducks to Knoxville, Tenn., didn’t go as well for Wilcox. A tie game at halftime turned into a 48-13 Oregon win.
Asked Tuesday if Oregon’s team speed is faster now, Wilcox answered with a question of his own.
“Warp and mach, what’s faster?”
Washington’s defense has undergone its own rapid movement since Wilcox arrived. Hired Jan. 2, Wilcox looked at the Huskies’ personnel and devised a way to get the best players on the field as often as possible. It sounds simple and, in part, it is.
As is the extrapolation of the philosophy that led to a base 3-4 scheme and lots of hybrid nickel packages.
“Everybody has a job,” junior safety Sean Parker said. “If everybody does their job, the defense works great. He doesn’t ask for much. Technique is great. When he wants to bring pressure, it works. Everything he does has sense to it. Everybody has different strengths on ‘D’. Whether they’re strong, fast, reaction time; he’s just smart. It all plays a part in our defense.”
Wilcox, a Junction City, Ore., native, was a four-year letterman for the Ducks from 1996-99 where he was a safety and cornerback. Following an NFL career spanning all of six practices (“Six too many,” Wilcox says), he moved furniture for a year before latching on at Boise State as a graduate assistant in 2001.
Wilcox said he was inspired at Oregon by working with coaches such as current Boise State head coach Chris Petersen, who was in charge of the Ducks’ receivers, and defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, who is still at Oregon in the same position.
“I really enjoyed how they coached and their approach to working with the players, and how much they loved being out there, and that made me think for the first time I would enjoy doing that,” Wilcox said.
He didn’t come to Washington with a specific scheme in mind. He also didn’t show up with the traditional bark of cartoonish defensive coordinators, always frothing and screaming.
“He’s a silent assassin,” Parker said. “He doesn’t get mad quick, but when he’s mad, you feel it.”
That falls in line with Wilcox’s teach-first philosophy.
“I think coaching is having expectations, holding them to it; when they do something wrong, you teach them how to do it right,” Wilcox said. “If there’s repetitive mistakes, you better look at either yourself and how you’re teaching or the player and their mental intensity — are they not paying attention well enough?”
Turn to senior cornerback Desmond Trufant to explain Wilcox’s approach, and he gives a near-verbatim answer.
“He’s a teacher first,” Trufant said. “He teaches us the scheme, and he expects big things out of you. He’ll get on you if you mess up because he’s got a lot of expectations. He’s on us hard, but, at the same time, when we make a mistake, he teaches us why we did that and guys aren’t making the same mistake anymore.”
Having Trufant play at a high level — head coach Steve Sarkisian said Trufant has “probably had as good a year as I’ve seen out of a corner here in a long time” — has trickled down to the rest of the defense. Wilcox can leave Trufant in one-on-one situations without worry. That allows him the ability to plug other issues or blitz from various spots.
All of which should leave Washington in better position to deal with Oregon. The Ducks have won eight straight against UW and are 3-0 the past three years against Sarkisian, outscoring the Huskies 130-52.
Wilcox and the defense hope to change that Saturday, or they will hear plenty of noise at Autzen.