Huskies’ Wilcox has his work cut out for him

SEATTLE — Nick Holt is yesterday’s news.

The flashy, well-paid assistant coach who came north from Los Angeles is no longer a part of the University of Washington rebuilding project. All Holt did at UW was to join a seemingly endless line of Husky defensive coordinators who have failed to bring back the golden days in these parts.

Now, the endeavor falls on a youthful, up-and-comer with Pacific Northwest ties but just a spattering of coaching experience against Pacific-12 Conference teams.

Justin Wilcox is, if nothing else, a fresh face at UW. And when it comes to what has preceded him, the Huskies’ 35-year-old defensive coordinator has no time for the past — except for the time last week when someone inquired about when Wilcox hopes to see this year’s UW defense pick up his system.

“Yesterday,” he deadpanned.

Wilcox, a former Oregon defensive back who has blazed his coaching trails at Cal, Boise State and Tennessee, has no interest in looking back.

“When you coach, all you’re worried about is to make sure that we’re better tomorrow than we were today,” he said last week. “I know that sounds cheesy, and it’s coachspeak, but it’s the truth. We’re more concerned about that than any numbers or statistics. It’s just being as good as we can be, each and every day.”

And yet it’s hard for anyone who has watched UW football over the past couple of years to wonder just how quickly that defense can become one that competes with Pac-12 offenses. Last season, the Huskies gave up 5,893 yards and allowed nearly 36 points per game, with six of the final seven opponents from 2011 eclipsing the 30-point mark. The last time anyone saw this defense in action, the Huskies allowed 777 yards and 67 points to Baylor in an Alamo Bowl loss.

Add it all up, and Wilcox has his work cut out for him. But that’s just part of what he loves about this job. The challenge of facing some of the most potent offenses in the country makes Wilcox giddy.

“Heck, yeah, it’s fun,” he said. “There are a lot of really good coaches in the conference, and great players. That’s part of the challenging aspect of it.”

Both Wilcox and head coach Steve Sarkisian acknowledge that the days of UW’s 1991 defense, which gave up fewer points all season (105) than the 2011 Huskies did in three November losses (112), are long behind us. Offenses have found unique ways to score often, and quickly, while defensive coordinators have struggled to catch up.

“It’s a little bit like comparing apples to oranges,” Sarkisian said. “The good defenses are on the ones that are winning, ultimately. The teams that can get the critical stops in the fourth quarter, that can get the turnovers, that can get after the quarterback and stop the run.”

Having spent the past two years running defenses at the University of Tennessee, Wilcox has been poring over tapes of Pac-12 offenses and knows keeping the numbers down won’t be easy.

In the old days it was “two backs, a tight end, play-action. Offenses ran 60 plays a game, and the score was 17-10,” he said. “And these days, it’s spreading the field, up-tempo, running fast-break. That’s just the way things have changed.”

The man the Huskies have tabbed to bring their defense back to respectability is well-known in this part of the country. A Eugene native and the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Dave Wilcox, Justin Wilcox played safety at Oregon in the late 1990s and eventually got into coaching. His first coordinator job came at Boise State in 2006, and while there he quickly established himself as a rising young assistant.

Two years ago, Tennessee hired Wilcox to a three-year deal at a reported salary of $600,000 a year. His Volunteers faced All-America talent like Cam Newton, LaMichael James and Julio Jones in 2010, then had to take on LSU, Alabama and an explosive offense in Arkansas last season. Tennessee ranked eighth out of 12 Southeastern Conference teams in defense last season, and a phone call from Sarkisian lured Wilcox back to the West Coast.

He inherits a defense that includes 16 players with starting experience but also has a history of struggles. Yet Wilcox said he isn’t thinking about what these players have done, or not done, in the past.

“I’m excited about the guys that are here,” he said last week. “They’ve been awesome. Their attitude has been phenomenal.”

The players seem to have responded to Wilcox as well, although effort was never really an issue under Holt. What the new coordinator has tried to do is build a defensive scheme around the existing talent. Players like defensive end Josh Shirley and safeties Taz Stevenson, Nate Fellner and Evan Zeger have been moved to linebacker to help add depth in UW’s new 3-4 scheme.

“If he wasn’t a great coach, he wouldn’t be here,” Shirley said. “And I’m glad he’s my coach.”

The most important aspect of Wilcox’s defense, at least for the short term, is what fellow coaches call a “freshman-friendly” scheme.

“Our defense can be as complex as we want it to be,” defensive backs coach Keith Heyward said, “but it’s also very simple.”

So far, it’s helped make for an easier transition, and the players seem to be taking to Wilcox and his new system.

“He does a great job of teaching the scheme,” said assistant Johnny Nansen, one of the few holdovers from the 2011 staff. “And the kids love it. He’s a laid-back guy that teaches, and I think the guys really enjoy that.”

Whatever has happened in the past is best left there, and for now Heyward and his defensive players are living in the present.

“Everybody’s picking up the scheme, and we’re all just playing naturally now,” cornerback Desmond Trufant said.

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