While there were many who were not sold on Steve Sarkisian as the right coach to take the Washington Huskiesto the top of the Pac-12, few will question the job that Justin Wilcox has done as the defensive coordinator over the last two seasons. He took one of the worst defenses in the country, fresh off getting embarrassed in a bowl game, and turned them into a stout, physical group that held their own more often than not. According to reports, Wilcox is set to join Sarkisian with the USC Trojans and become the defensive coordinator there following UW’s game in the Fight Hunger Bowl against the BYU Cougars. If Wilcox leaves, it will be the biggest blow the Washington’s coaching staff this offseason.
The 2011 season saw Washington boast one of the nation’s worst defenses. The Huskies ranked No. 108 in scoring defense and No. 106 in total defense the year before Wilcox took over as the DC in Seattle. In his first season, he completely turned the group around and they finished 2012 ranked No. 39 in scoring defense and No. 31 in total defense. Wilcox showed that the improvement was not a fluke as UW ranked No. 34 in scoring defense and No. 49 in total defense this season despite losing their No. 1 cornerback in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft last season.
That great work shouldn’t come as any surprise to those who have paid attention to Wilcox throughout his career. The 37-year-old is one of the hottest names among assistant coaches when it comes to future head coaching jobs as he has built an impressive resume as a DC over the years. He first became a DC with the Boise State Broncos back in 2006 and his defense led the WAC in defense all four seasons he was at the helm from 2006-09 as Boise State went 49-4 during that time.
From there, Wilcox put new life in the Tennessee Volunteers‘ defense in 2010 as they finished the year ranked No. 28 in the country in total defense and No. 35 in scoring defense. Once Wilcox left for UW in 2011, Tennessee’s D fell apart and dropped to No. 107 in total defense and No. 104 in scoring defense the year after he left. Everywhere he goes, Wilcox builds a strong defense even with pieces that were not good together under someone else’s tutelage. He’s a fantastic defensive coach who is likely to get plenty of looks for head coaching jobs in the near future.
His connection with Chris Petersen and Boise State provided some optimism that Wilcox might be coaxed into staying at Washington in 2014. There’s also a huge penalty in his contract with UW that will trigger if Wilcox leaves the Huskies for another Pac-12 school meant to dissuade other schools from poaching him. USC would be on the hook to pay this buy-out, but it will be money well spent if Wilcox brings his defensive-building prowess to the Trojans, who are loaded with talent on the defensive side of the ball.
While it’s never positive to lose your head coach to a conference rival, Washington is likely going to feel the effects of losing Wilcox much more than Sarkisian if the DC does indeed bolt for USC. There’s still tons of young talent on the defensive side of the ball for Washington going forward but will their next DC be able to get the same level of production out of them as Wilcox did?