Football coaches love to make lists, and the funny thing about USC’s new defensive coordinator is that all of a sudden he finds himself on a list of his own.
Justin Wilcox is on the "hot list" of young assistants around the country already projected to be head coaching material.
The preseason magazines and blogs already are mentioning him with such noted up-and-comers as Jake Spavital at Texas A&M, Tom Herman at Ohio State and Rhett Lashlee at Auburn.
Meet Wilcox, and you immediately understand why. At 37 years old, he not only as the look, he has the "it factor." It’s difficult to explain, but if you have been around football long enough, you almost can sense when an assistant is destined for bigger things.
Working in San Diego in the 1970s, I saw it a couple of times. First with Bill Walsh and later with Joe Gibbs. Covering the Rams, I saw it with Dick Vermeil and Marv Levy. At USC, you sensed it early on with Mike Riley, when he was an offensive coordinator under John Robinson. Spend any amount of time with coaches like that, and you just know.
Wilcox strikes you the same way. Maybe it’s because his resume looks like something straight out of central casting.
"I’ve been very fortunate to learn under some great coaches," Wilcox said.
He worked for Jeff Tedford at Cal, Chris Petersen at Boise State and, of course, his present boss, Steve Sarkisian, at Washington before joining Coach Sark, as he calls him, at USC.
Then there are those other football genes to consider. Wilcox’s father, Dave, was a pro football Hall of Fame linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers. If you grew up in Los Angeles as a Rams fan, the elder Wilcox personally ruined many of your Sunday afternoons. He was one hellacious football player.
It doesn’t stop there. Wilcox’s uncle John and brother Josh both spent time playing in the NFL. By now, you get the idea.
Football is in Justin’s blood. He played safety and cornerback at Oregon in the late 1990s, making second team All Pac-10 and first team All Pac-10 Academic.
None of that guarantees you can coach, of course. You still have to go out and prove it. Early on, Wilcox certainly has.
He was defensive coordinator for four years when Boise State went 49-4. His defense was eighth nationally against the rush in 2006 and was third nationally in scoring defense in 2008. In 2009, Boise was 14th in the nation in both total defense and scoring defense.
His success continued at Washington. The year before he arrived, Sarkisian’s first year as head coach, the Huskies were ranked lower than 105th nationally in total defense, scoring defense and pass defense. In Wilcox’s first season as coordinator in 2012, the pass defense improved to 28th in the nation. In 2013, it was 11th against the pass and in the top 35 in scoring defense.
Now, here he is, at USC, where he is facing his biggest challenge yet. Sure, the overall talent is greater, but so is the pressure. To his credit, Wilcox seems to understand that.
"You come here, and it’s such a ... what’s the word? ... such a powerful place. You see all those trophies, all those All-American plaques, and you realize things are just different around here. You realize that USC is truly a global brand."
Now Wilcox is intent on enhancing that brand, at least defensively. He inherits perhaps the finest group of defensive players in the conference, led by likely future NFL first-round draft pick Leonard Williams at tackle and linebacker Hayes Pullard, who is the soul of the unit.
"We’re going to play aggressive," Wilcox said. "Sometimes we’ll be in an odd front and sometimes an even front. We’ll bring (meaning blitz) four sometimes and other times we’ll bring six.
"We have a menu of things to pull from, but one thing we’ll always be, we’ll always be aggressive."
If he’s lucky, he will also have Adoree' Jackson, the five-star freshman recruit who, in the first three days of fall camp, easily has been the most exciting player on the field. Jackson has been playing cornerback on defense and wide receiver on offense, and it has been impossible not to notice his electric presence.
"Adoree' is really athletic with elite change-of-direction skills and he is a very bright kid," said Wilcox. "Above all, he is a football player first."
The new defensive coordinator doesn’t hide his preference when it comes to Jackson's eventual destination.
"Me? Of course I’d like him to play defense," Wilcox said, smiling. "But I’m sure Coach Sark will do what’s best for our team."
Whatever happens, it already seems clear that both Jackson and Wilcox are headed for bigger things down the college football road.