Due to space reasons, my story on Justin Wilcox for the paper today was cut quite a bit. So I figured I’d just put the whole thing here:
Even though his younger brother now works for Oregon’s bitterest of rivals, Josh Wilcox said there won’t be much venom aimed at Justin Wilcox when he returns again to Oregon on Saturday.
“Maybe there will be a silent boo or something,” said Josh, who like Justin grew up in Junction City, about 15 miles from Eugene, where each later played for the Ducks. “It won’t be like it would be for Rick Neuheisel (a longtime Duck target) let’s put it that way.”
Fitting, considering the nickname some UW players have given first-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who in his calm, methodical manner has begun to turn around a unit that last year ranked among the worst in school history.
“To me, he is like a silent assassin,” said Washington safety Sean Parker. “He doesn’t get mad quick, but when he’s mad, you feel it.”
Justin Wilcox, though, had little reason for complaint last Thursday when the Huskies beat then No. 8-ranked Stanford 17-13, with the Cardinal’s only touchdown coming via an interception — a performance some UW fans called the best by a Husky defense in more than a decade.
It was a performance that provided the clearest validation yet of the moves UW coach Steve Sarkisian made after the 2011 season to revamp his defensive coaching staff, notably firing Nick Holt as coordinator and hiring Wilcox.
It also made Wilcox, already regarded as a rising star when hired by UW, that much hotter of a commodity.
As he stood in the uncommonly bright October sun on UW’s practice field Tuesday morning, though, Wilcox said the heat he’s feeling most is that of Oregon’s offense burning through the video screen.
“Nobody in our building is sitting around saying ‘oh man we’ve got this figured out,”’ he said. “It’s the furthest from it.”
Indeed, if anyone on UW’s staff knows about the Ducks, it’s Wilcox. His father is Dave Wilcox, who played two years at Oregon in 1962-63 before an 11-year career with the 49ers that landed him in the NFL Hall of Fame. After retiring, Dave Wilcox settled back in Oregon, eventually in Junction City, working as a farmer. Josh and Justin were too young to remember their father’s playing days, but gravitated to the sport quickly. Justin Wilcox recalled Tuesday his days as a ball boy at Oregon games in the late ’80s and early ’90s, meeting the likes of Drew Bledsoe, Troy Aikman and Rodney Peete, and chasing after extra points and field goals kicked into the stands.
“That was a big deal for a kid to see all that,” he said.
Both brothers starred at Junction City High and later at Oregon. Justin Wilcox signed originally as a quarterback and then moved to the secondary as a quicker way to get on the field, lettering from 1996-99 as a safety and cornerback.
Those memories will never fade. But Saturday, he said, his focus is on beating the Ducks, not nostalgia.
“I went to school there, proud to be from there,” he said. “But my allegiance is with the Huskies and this team.”
In fact, he’s been down this road before — this will be the seventh time he has faced Oregon as an opposing coach and fourth as a coordinator. His teams are 2-1 when he has faced Oregon as a coordinator — 2-0 at Boise State in 2008-09 and 0-1 at Tennessee in 2010. Most memorable was a 19-8 Boise State win over the Ducks in the opening game of the 2009 season which also served as the first game for Chip Kelly as Oregon’s head coach — BSU held the Ducks to 152 total yards. Oregon, though, gained 464 yards in the 2008 game (a 37-32 Boise State win) and 447 in 2010 (a 48-13 Duck win at Tennessee) and Wilcox noted that different personnel on each side in each game — and this week — makes drawing comparisons between then and now difficult.
Maybe more relevant than Wilcox’s history with Oregon is his present with the UW players, whom Sarkisian said Tuesday have “bought in” to everything Wilcox is teaching them.
Wilcox arrived at UW branded as a coach who would ideally run a 3-4. But Sarkisian noted that one of the keys to what Wilcox has done so far is not forcing any specific scheme on the Huskies but instead assessing the personnel and devising schemes to put players in the best spots possible. That was evident against Stanford when Wilcox came up with a plan to put more of UW’s bigger players on the field together to stop the Cardinal’s power running game.
“It’s trying to get our best people on the field and what can we do schematically that gets those guys on the field to where they have an opportunity to make some plays,” Wilcox said.
Said Parker, a junior safety: “Everybody has a job and if everybody does their job, the defense works great. Everything he does has sense to it.”
Wilcox also brought to UW a different persona than Holt and his trademark bald head and animated sideline demeanor.
“He’s a teacher first,” said senior cornerback Desmond Trufant of Wilcox. “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 mistakes anymore.”
Just who he is, Wilcox said.
“I don’t think you try to be somebody else — you be yourself,” he said. “And if you can help them become a better player, they are going to listen. That’s what you want at the end of the day.”
Despite his lineage, Wilcox said he sort of fell into being a coach. After his Oregon career, he had a brief stint as a free agent with the Washington Redskins. He said Tuesday it was “six days. … was probably six too many.”
He returned to Eugene and was working at a furniture store and debating entering the business world, or taking a job coaching American football in France, when one of his former Oregon position coaches — Bob Gregory — told him there was a graduate assistant’s job open at Boise State. He recalled helping pay the bills by selling pizzas on the side.
That led in 2003 to his first fulltime job working at Cal for another former Oregon assistant, Jeff Tedford, beginning a road that has him Saturday back once again where it all began.