Above-average coach: Justin Wilcox sets himself apart as coordinator

Tennessee defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox works with players during the Vols’ spring practice at Haslam Field.

Photo by Saul Young

Tennessee defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox works with players during the Vols’ spring practice at Haslam Field.

- Age: 33

- Position(s) Coaching: Defensive coordinator

- Hired: Feb. 2, 2010

- As a Coach: 2006-09 - Boise State (defensive coordinator); 2003-05 - California (linebackers); 2001-02 - Boise State (grad assistant/linebackers).

- As a Player: 1995-99 - Oregon. Played his first three seasons at safety, then moved to cornerback as a senior and was named All-Pac-10 second team. Played in four bowl games. He earned a bachelor's degree in anthropology.

- Personal: Is the son of NFL Hall of Famer Dave Wilcox, an All-Pro linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers.

The assessment is blunt and perhaps a bit too critical.

But when it comes to evaluating a former high school quarterback and defensive back to fit in his scheme, a rising coaching star simply can't take everybody.

So, sorry Justin Wilcox the Oregon cornerback. Justin Wilcox the Tennessee defensive coordinator would probably have to pass on a scholarship offer as he takes over and tries to shape the Vols into the fast, versatile image he has for them.

"This is a short conversation," Wilcox said. "I was very average - very average.

"I was able to play, and I had good coaches. But I went to college as a quarterback and changed over after my second fall and played safety for three years and then played corner my whole senior year. Got to play, but I was just, for playing corner and safety, I was a very average athlete to play that position. Basically I had to know the game, and that was about it."

That might be overstating things a bit for a second-team all-conference pick during his last year with the Ducks, though in terms of pure ability Wilcox might not be looking for cover guys much like himself to plug into the UT secondary.

Intellectually, though, Wilcox set himself apart from the crowd as a player and has continued to do the same as a coordinator, adapting schemes and mixing personnel seemingly from game to game to build some of the best units in the country over the last couple years at Boise State. And though the Broncos have brought in their share of impressive recruits lately, annually they aren't able to bring in the elite talent the SEC and the Vols attract - which is now at Wilcox the coach's disposal.

"Athletically I wasn't as good as most guys, but I knew more than they did," Wilcox said. "That was how I was able to play. I don't think I'm being too hard on myself. I'm sure my coaches would say the same thing. I don't have an over-inflated sense of much, and I think I have a pretty literal view of that stuff. I was average, and that doesn't mean I didn't play hard and all that. It's just a fact.

"But going through college, coaching really never crossed my mind. I got into a pro camp for like six practices and it was very obvious. Sometimes you just know when you're not meant to be somewhere, and that was that. I just knew I wasn't good enough."

That worked out well for Boise State and California since it set Wilcox on the coaching path early, and his impact on the sidelines is much more difficult to downplay.

During three seasons at Cal as a linebacker coach, the Golden Bears went to three straight bowls and he helped lead them to 26 wins. He parlayed that gig into the coordinator position with Boise State - returning after a two-year stint earlier as a graduate assistant - turning a program known for offensive fireworks into the best total and scoring defense in the Western Athletic Conference during each of his four years there.

His new program already has an established tradition of success on defense that he'll have to live up to, which Wilcox hasn't shied away from. He may be hard on the player he used to be, but there's been nothing average about his career as a coach so far.

"I always really enjoyed learning the game, probably because of the way I had to play," Wilcox said. "I had to be fundamental and I had to know what was going on, not only what I was doing but what the guys next to me were doing. That was the only way I was going to be halfway successful playing.

"So when I got into coaching, I was thinking, OK, if I can get the guys that are good athletes to know that, they're going to be pretty good."

And that will be the expectation for Wilcox with the Vols. He isn't looking for average.

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Comments » 56

vol75 writes:

Dooley made his best hire in Wilcox. while this may be a tough year, Wilcox will keep us in most games. In time, Dooley will be recognized as a supreme coach. And Wilcox will be known as one of the brightest defensive coordinators in the nation. Stay positive Big Orange fans. The future is birght!

volfan53 writes:

Another one of CDD's great moves since he came here. If you think we had good defenses before just give CJW a chance to get his kind of players in here. Offense scores points but it takes a good defense to win games.

Huttdawg100 writes:

I'm excited about JW. One thing about Boise State is the fact that Chris Peterson always has his team well prepared. I expect to see those same traits in JW. He's got a lot to live up to. Chief coached some stout defenses, but I'm looking forward to seeing JW bring a new kind of nasty to the table.

Pullingguard writes:

I think we all can make a better avaulation of the defense after the Oregon and Florida games. If he shuts both of those offense down, then we know that UT has someone special for the future.

Voluvr writes:

I'm beginning to think big things are on the way.

Bloodrunzorange writes:

CJW and Chuck Smith are young coaches who will motivate! Look back at some of Boise's games the last few years. TCU comes to mind. Boise was intense! Our guys will actually be coached to wrap up...GBO!!

TommyJack writes:

Good piece, Ward.

BigBadVol writes:

Without question coach Dooley is taking this program in the right direction. He has hired great coaches and has focused on trying to bring in character players. He has established a life lessons program with Andre Lott in order to help these young men become educated citizens. We will see this become the norm across the nation in a few years. We will be fine but it will take time.

crimsonviper writes:

in response to TommyJack:

Good piece, Ward.

Concur with that.

alwaysVol writes:

I'm very excited about wilcox, one of the best young coaches and we have him.

alwaysVol writes:

in response to Agent_Orange:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

his defense shut down Oregon

AppreciativeAlum writes:

I'll be suprized if they do not have some breakdowns that cost games during the first year.

newvolfan writes:

Great Hire! Great Guy.

SoddyVol writes:

in response to AppreciativeAlum:

I'll be suprized if they do not have some breakdowns that cost games during the first year.

Just hoping what we always hear about improvement from 1st to 2nd game holds true for The Vols this year. Not necessarily winning both, but if Vols play with both effort and brains I will be happy.

OrangePsyched writes:

Let me be positive before Docnotavolfan50 and VolnotHamiltonbutlustsforPhilFulmerfan. Wilcox is an innovator who will change schemes from team to team. Also a nuts and bolts guy who will insist on fundamentals such as wrapping up the dude to make a tackle. Let's enjoy him because he'll soon be a headcoach somewhere. ROCKY TOP!

jcherrie#219531 (Inactive) writes:

We're going to be alright, 7-5.

DannyVol writes:

Good article by an above average writer, bad headline by a well below average editor.

richvol writes:

I've got a couple of hunches about Wilcox...he will turn Tennessee's defense into a weapon once again and he will attract a very high quality recruit to UT once he's established.

Chavis had some good defenses but we never had good pass defense and third and long was our weakness for years. The secondary of Tim Priest,Bobby Majors,Conrad Graham and David Allen was the greatest I ever saw on any college team. They still hold the record for NCAA interceptions at 43 for a 10 or 11 game season. That's four per game either way.

Since that time it seems Tennessee did not know how to coach the secondary and certainly could not play man coverage as a unit. Chavis left Slade in a position that he could not coach and it's nice to see a former DB coaching our secondary now. I think we will see a big improvement.

nocleats writes:

If he gets our DBs and LBs to start wrapping up and TACKLING rather than lowering their shoulder and trying to "hit" the ball carrier down, I will be happy. Also, we cant really judge his abilities until he has his players in there.

pdhuff#552644 writes:

His degree should help him understand a few players and 99% of we GVXer's.

AtLeastMyTeamHasPerfectSeasons writes:

It would be awesome if Wilcox's defense outperforms Chavis' down at LSU, wouldn't it??

And even better would be more wins that SoCal.

therightstuff writes:

Coach Wilcox appears to be a good hire. If CJW can get his players to buy into the intelectual side along with solid fundamentals he very well may be a great hire.

Vol737 writes:

in response to AtLeastMyTeamHasPerfectSeasons:

It would be awesome if Wilcox's defense outperforms Chavis' down at LSU, wouldn't it??

And even better would be more wins that SoCal.

We just need our offense to be consistently 3rd and long against Chavis and LSU....then we'll move the ball up and down the field on them all day! There are definitely some big chinks in the armor of LSU that are now showing up under Miles. Loaded with talent and they're showing signs of struggling lately.

Cldvols1 writes:

Can't wait to hear those famous words, "It's football time in Tennessee!" Given some time Dooley and Wilcox will turn out to be great hires for UT. I see sunglasses in my future! Go Big Orange!!!

bornonamoutaintop writes:

True a good test will be Florida and Oregon but keep in mind how other more in tune teams play them. Don't get me wrong I would love to shut them down. Might be a little harder on coach when its the SEC I think he's up to it. But lets stay in line as fans, armchairs,and watercooler analist. GO BIG HERE WE COME ORANGE

jrobi124 writes:

I am excited about all our coaches. I love the hire of our OL coach. I think in two yrs our OL will be the strength of our team. CW is a great hire we know what he did with average players, our defense is our strength this year. CW big test will be early the oregon and florida game. Then we will know if it will be a fun season or a very long one. the last thing I have to add is we will have a great special teams play with the top kicker and punter coming in I know we have a tough road ahead but I feel like we will be at the top of the mountain again in a few yrs GO VOLS!!

UTByrd writes:

Here's hoping hiring Andre Lott as Life Coach is as successful as any position coach. I like all the coaching hires but I really like the Life Coach position.
Speaking of that, Major Wingate could use some of Andre's counseling. After all, once a Vol always a VOL.
Go VOLS!!!!!

HoustonVol writes:

This is actually the asst. coach I am most excited about. I fully believe this was the gem hire by Dooley.

givehim6 writes:

By what I've seen writing we will have a pretty good special teams also, games can be won with great defences and ST. Throw in a few good runs and passes and I think UT will do better then 5th in the SEC east, and will repeat over UK.

volfanatic929 writes:

Good to have a young coordinator with a great defensive mind. Should be fun to watch what he puts on the field and can do over the years, especially once we add a little depth. We're down right now but can only go up from here.

HtownVol writes:

On a good note Ole Miss just lost a QB and they only have 2 on their roster. I find it very hard to see UT losing to Ole Miss this season. They are maybe worse off than we in terms of returning starters.

DaddyVol writes:

in response to Pullingguard:

I think we all can make a better avaulation of the defense after the Oregon and Florida games. If he shuts both of those offense down, then we know that UT has someone special for the future.

He doesn't have to shut then down. Just keep us close going into the 4th quarter.

A one point win is still a win.

Pompey writes:

in response to vol75:

Dooley made his best hire in Wilcox. while this may be a tough year, Wilcox will keep us in most games. In time, Dooley will be recognized as a supreme coach. And Wilcox will be known as one of the brightest defensive coordinators in the nation. Stay positive Big Orange fans. The future is birght!

Good post .......and likely accurate.

hueypilot writes:

I think this might be Dooley's best move in hiring this guy.
Boise St. always had offensive fireworks but became credible nationally when Wilcox began coaching the d. Boise had recruiting classes ranked in the 40's yet last year held Oregon and TCU, two of the most prolific scoring offenses in the country to under 14 each.
In watching BS in a few games last year I was impressed with how disruptive the d was in terms of defensive guys across the line of scrimmage, blowing up plays. Don't know if it was gambles or some sort of zone blitz package but it certainly did throw offenses off balance.
It will be interesting to see what he can do against some of the nation's toughest squads, namely Oregon, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and LSU. Pretty tough lineup. Welcome to the SEC Mr. Wilcox.

Doobz15 writes:

in response to Pullingguard:

I think we all can make a better avaulation of the defense after the Oregon and Florida games. If he shuts both of those offense down, then we know that UT has someone special for the future.

Lets give him some time and room for error. I wouldn't expect too many "shut down" performances just yet. Lets say if the defense gives us a chance to be in each of those games then we know he is special.

TommyJack writes:

Seemingly a good hire. Let's give these guys a chance.

AHoffman writes:

Maybe Jim Haslam should have hired this guy as head coach?

hikerdude writes:

When the upcoming season is over (I'm afraid its going to be a long one), we UT fans will be glad that Justin Wilcox was hired.

Lostvolinhighweeds writes:

in response to AHoffman:

Maybe Jim Haslam should have hired this guy as head coach?

And maybe he should buy the company you work for and let you go.

murrayvol writes:

This is a good year to have an "above average" defensive coordinator.

tovolny writes:

Remember "don't count your chickens before they hatch" - Wilcox will be facing competition like he has never seen before. Oregon's or California's next coach will probably have the iniitals, JW. UT will not pay enough to keep him out of the Big 10 or Notre Dame. Penn State is already looking at him as a possible Paterno reincarnation. Somebody will need to replace Mac at Texas. UT could give him a HUGE longterm contract to discourage "lateral movement" but it will not happen under Hamilton, IN MY OPINION, which is like noses and ***holes...everybody has them.

oskie_score writes:

Coaches Dooley and Wilcox...what a duo.

Avant-garde...

CJW's Defensive schemes are tactically solid and progressive, his in-game adjustments quick & decisive.

Welcome to the future of Tennessee football...

Ayres_Hall writes:

Wilcox will soon prove he is so much better than Old Man Kiffin. We'll be fun to watch, fast and confusing, playing havoc on the opposition.

Can we score enough on D and special teams in order to win?

always_vol (Inactive) writes:

We'll lose the guys PDQ if he's successful: either to the pros or to a head-coaching job.

manoffewwords writes:

"twenty,fifteen,ten and five your voice were our eyes TOUCHDOWD TENNESSEE"!!! Oh for the good old days.

AHoffman writes:

in response to Lostvolinhighweeds:

And maybe he should buy the company you work for and let you go.

Not even Jim Haslam has that much money.

feathersax writes:

in response to DannyVol:

Good article by an above average writer, bad headline by a well below average editor.

Right on with this...headline was IDIOTIC, so reading the article clarified things. JW is going to energize this defense.

voloffaith writes:

in response to HtownVol:

On a good note Ole Miss just lost a QB and they only have 2 on their roster. I find it very hard to see UT losing to Ole Miss this season. They are maybe worse off than we in terms of returning starters.

SORRY...someones son going down injured is not a good note! This shows where our society is when we get happy over some other teams player(s) getting injured to improve our shot at WINNING. YES you are OFF TOPIC!

On topic, Wilcox will be interesting no doubt ,but remember players have to buy in.

VolGrad writes:

Wow! This was a story that actually told me something I DIDN'T already know. Good job, Austin. Great read.

Go Vols!!!

Oenoboy writes:

in response to voloffaith:

SORRY...someones son going down injured is not a good note! This shows where our society is when we get happy over some other teams player(s) getting injured to improve our shot at WINNING. YES you are OFF TOPIC!

On topic, Wilcox will be interesting no doubt ,but remember players have to buy in.

Cotton didn't go down injured. He quit.

How's our society now?

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