MADISON, Wis. — Don’t judge him by the SkyMiles. Or the adjectives.
Versatile. Physical. Teacher. Personable. A lot of words have been handcuffed to Justin Wilcox over the last dozen years or so, from Boise to Knoxville, from Seattle to SoCal to Madison. Some good, some bad, most true.
Stuff them. Stuff ’em all.
If you’re going to judge him, he only asks one thing: Do it by his actions.
“When you’re new, at the first team meeting we had, it’s not like you sit there and give some speech and say, ‘Hey, guys, you’ve gotta trust me,’” Wisconsin’s new defensive coordinator told Landof10.com. “That’s for the movies, you know?
“I think it’s what you do every day. It’s how you work with them. And my job is to get to know them, and we spent time at that, on the field and off the field. And it’s a good group of guys. It’s not like you get to know somebody intimately over, you know, a couple of months. Personalities are different all the way around: Players, mine, all that. But it’s been a great group of people to be around and I really appreciate how they’ve gone about their work.”
You deal. You grind. Such is the mantra in Mad City: Once the cards are shuffled, play the best dang hand you can, shut your trap, and dig.
The Badgers are going on their fourth defensive or co-defensive coordinator in five years — a revolving philosophical door that started with Chris Ash (now the head coach at Rutgers) and Charlie Partridge (now running the show at Florida Atlantic) sharing the controls in 2011, turned to Wilcox in 2016, and saw three seasons of Dave Aranda in the middle doing wacky, non-conventional Dave Aranda things.
“Now Coach Wilcox is my defensive coordinator,” offered senior linebacker Vince Biegel, who has remained grounded — for the most part — as the philosophies have spun all around him. “And there isn’t a guy in this country you wouldn’t love more than Coach Wilcox as my defensive coordinator.”
Few guys in this country are as well-traveled. Madison is Wilcox’s fourth stop over the last decade after spells running the defenses at USC (2014-’15), Washington (’12-’13), Tennessee (’10-’11) and perhaps most impactfully, Boise State (2006-’09).
In general, folks who know Wilcox best describe his defenses the way Bruce Lee used to describe water: It can flow, it can crash. Put it in a cup, it becomes the cup. Put it in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. Put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot.
Wilcox adapts — to his strengths, to his roster, to the dance card. The Badgers return six starters, including all but one starting linebacker, off a unit that led the FBS in scoring defense (13.7) and ranked second in overall defense. We know the 3-4 base will remain a starting point.
Everything else? Water.
“No, it’s not the same defense,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “We just talked about (how) two safeties are gone and a cornerback is gone, the linebacker of the year is gone and we play a whole different schedule, really.
“There’ll be some similarities. But we were going to be different no matter what because of personnel and because of who we’re playing, the (teams) that we’re facing, so … and that’s the fun of the season, is who are we going to be offensively and defensively and special teams and develop as a team? We know what we want to be, and that’s the beauty of the journey of a season.”
They want to knock your block off, formation be damned. Wilcox is down with that. Always has been.
“You can’t be a good football player and not be physical,” said Wilcox, a former cornerback and safety at Oregon and the son of Hall-of-Fame linebacker Dave Wilcox. “I don’t care if you’re a cornerback, a defensive lineman, even a quarterback. It’s a physical game. You’ve got to exhibit toughness, and it’s a part of the game. And if you’re not wired that way, yes, it’s our job to teach them, given them the techniques so they can be physical. And incorporate that in practice and control it when we need to control it. But you have to be a physical player and a physical team in order to win.”
He raised two fingers, rabbit-ears style.
“That’s just how it is,” Wilcox continued, “even (with) the quote-unquote ‘finesse’ teams that people maybe label as ‘finesse,’ I don’t think you’re going to be a good team. No matter what style you play, you can’t be a ‘finesse’ team — that just doesn’t happen.”
We know his better crews force the issue. And takeaways. Wilcox’s 2009 defense at Boise State ranked 14th in scoring defense and third in in turnover margin. His USC bunch in 2014 was among the top 20 nationally in turnover margin and opponent third-down conversion rate. In 2015, the Trojans led the Pac-12 in opponent third-down conversions while scoring five defensive touchdowns.
Of course, they also gave up 40 points or more to Oregon (48), Notre Dame (41) and Stanford (41 twice over), a return that prompted some Troy faithful to launch a FireJustinWilcox.com site. Lovely.
“Obviously, that’s something that we’re going to emphasize and a lot of people emphasize,” Wilcox said. “Everybody says, ‘We’re going to be physical.’ We’re not unique in that. It’s how you go about your daily (responsibilities) and how you approach your work and what you do on the practice field which will carry over to the games. That’s when you become physical.”
Wilcox has seen it all twice over, even at age 39. At Oregon, he majored in — wait for it — anthropology; Wilcox gets people, in part, because he studied them. He’s gone big. He’s gone small. He’s done old. And young. His Volunteers unit in 2011 ranked 28th nationally in total defense with three freshmen in the starting lineup.
“I think the fans back home can expect to see the same thing, still the same (basic) nuts and bolts of a Wisconsin defense that made us successful in the past,” Biegel said. “But you will see some different types of (process) and some different types of wrinkles to our game.”
So what’s it going to be?
Cup? Bottle? Teapot?
None of the above? Or all?
“It’s hard work, putting your time in, getting dirty and sweat,” Wilcox chuckled. “And that investment, that (work), that’s not Disneyland fun, it’s not vacation fun, it’s not going-to-the-beach fun. It’s just not.
“It’s a different kind of (satisfaction) when you invest fully in something and then you see the benefit of it. The benefits can be you making a sack or an interception, or it can be just how you live your life. That’s the great thing about football, is that so much of this carries over off the field. And so, that’s, to me, what the fun part is. Seeing those things to come fruition.”
Seeing the actions. And the scoreboard. Because, ultimately, the latter is how Wilcox will be judged, same as it ever was.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler