Was it just talk?
Surely you remember when Tennessee defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox was deemed one of the hottest up-and-coming assistant coaches in the nation by various national media outlets.
Egads. Now, Wilcox's Vols are ranked 87th in the nation in total defense. Needless to say nobody is touting the once-deemed prodigy from Boise State.
In all fairness, Wilcox has some battles that would undermine the best coaches. Even the world wide web doesn't have enough space to list UT's personnel limitations on defense.
Here, I spoke with Wilcox about UT's defense. My advice – don't judge him yet.
Hooker: Justin, tell me about Memphis?
Justin Wilcox: Well, I think Memphis is a team that has got some speed on the edges. I think the strength of their offense is in the offensive line. They've got some veterans there. At quarterback they've played a couple different guys. One guy is a mobile guy that runs the zone read. The other guy is more like a drop back passer, and like I said they have some speed at wide out. They have a slot receiver that runs really, really well, so they can push the ball down the field that way.
Hooker: From the outside looking in, some people think your team has a decided advantage against Memphis. How do you make sure that your football team doesn't look at it like that?
Wilcox: I don't care who we are playing. When we get ready to play a game it's got to be about us, whether we are playing South Carolina, whether we're playing Alabama or whether we're playing Memphis it doesn't matter. It's all about us and how we execute. Our issues are that we haven't executed well at times and that has hurt us. To me, going into this game, It doesn't matter who we are playing. It matters how we execute and how we prepare and how we end up playing is all a product of what we do during the week and that's what we need to be focused on.
Hooker: Your thoughts on Prentiss Waggner at corner the first week (against South Carolina), Did you like what you saw?
Wilcox: I thought he did a pretty good job moving over there. Prentiss is a pretty sharp guy, so mentally he handled it well. He had a couple plays that he busted on, but I thought going out there and playing against some good receivers he did a nice job of competing and made a couple of tackles that we liked and he contested a ball. I thought it was a good step forward for him to be able to do that.
Hooker: Same question for (safety) Brent Brewer in a more extended role?
Wilcox: He is a physical guy who hasn't played a lot, not real experienced. But he is physical, and he's very aggressive when he plays. We're excited about where Brent's going. He needs to improve on his open field tackling. That's one area where we need to improve on as a team and it's something specifically for him, but you'll continue to see him more and more.
Hooker: The open field tackling, at this point, how satisfied or dissatisfied are you with it?
Wilcox: Well I think if you break down the explosive plays a lot of them will come at the expense of tackling. Explosive plays are given up either by technique error or missed tackle, or sometimes an ability match up. But the ones we need to limit are the missed tackles, which show up more and more, and then the explosive plays based on mental errors and those have decreased throughout the season, which you want, but the tackling is something that you have to practice and preach every week. It's a combination of ability and toughness. That's really what tackling is and you've got to have both of those to be a good tackler and it's something you've got to practice and we'll continue to practice it.
Hooker: Sticking with the secondary, has Janzen Jackson continued to improve or has there been too many peaks and valleys this year with him?
Wilcox: I think he started off after the first couple of games and really improved over the next three and I think he's had some games where he's showed up a little bit more than others. But Janzen is a very talented guy. He is learning to play a little more under control. You really want those guys to play just about one inch out of control. You've got to be disciplined on what your assignment is, disciplined with your eye control and then be able to cut it loose and go make a play when it's time. And Janzen's a guy that has that ability and he's gotten better on knowing when to take a shot and when not to, and that's just something that comes with playing a little bit more.
Hooker: How much concern do you have that now that he is going to return punts and that he's doing so much on special teams that at some point in the game you could have a fatigued Janzen Jackson?
Wilcox: Well, I think that's just something that we'll have to monitor, and if that's the case then we've got to rest him a couple plays here and there and protect ourselves coverage-wise when we do sub him out because he is a guy we depend on to match up in the slot. He's a guy we put in the post to erase a lot of things. We need to do a good job of managing him and make sure we don't put ourselves in a bad spot by putting him out there when he's not able to play the technique we're asking him to play.
Hooker: The common thought process is that linebackers learn a system and that is certainly true when a new coaching staff takes over, but how much do you also learn about your linebackers throughout the season, their strengths, and their weaknesses? Because I see Herman Lathers coming free a lot more than he was a month ago.
Wilcox: Yeah, and Herman has played better and better. He's got a lot of things he needs to work on as well, but I think a lot of that has to do with just playing a little bit more. Guys see things a step quicker after they've seen them once before. When you are young, as a player, and you see a play for the first time or a certain play action you are going to react a certain way and it's not always right. After you've seen that the second time hopefully it clicks a little faster and you can play quicker and you are not thinking as much and you are reacting. That to me is the biggest thing, it's when you are out there playing you need to react and execute and not sit out there and think. And I think that's a fine line, and I think guys like Herman Lathers have showed up a little bit more and more each week because they are reacting more than they are thinking.
Hooker: You haven't had that dominant defensive tackle show up. Some people thought it might be Montori Hughes, but how much of a challenge is it each and every week to come up with a game plan when you don't have that one guy that has to be double teamed?
Wilcox: Yeah. It's something that we try depending on what teams are going to try to do running the ball on us whether they are a zone team or a power team or whatever they are going to try to do, we put it together that way. There are certain guys that play the double teams a little bit better. There are certain guys that we don't want to put in those double teams. And we've got to manage that by what fronts we are playing, how many guys are we going to put in the box to try and take away some runs, and that's just a fine line.
You've got to be careful not to give them too much, too many things, too many different variables for our own guys because then they will mess it up and you don't want that. So, that's a fine line we walk and it's been pretty unique this year because we are a little bit light at spots, but that's the situation we are in and we've got to keep coaching the guys that we've got in there and get them to play as good as they can possibly play, and we've got to help them schematically by giving us the best chance for us to play the plays.
Hooker: Could you make an argument that defensive end/defensive tackle Malik Jackson has been one of your most important players.
Wilcox: No doubt. You absolutely could say that.
Hooker: What do you like about what he's done this year?
Wilcox: I think he came in here and bought in and he's trying to do what we asked him to do. He's playing a little bit out of position and I think Malik can be an inside guy but he needs to gain some weight. He needs to gain some strength. Malik has to be a little more consistent. He's had some good plays. He's had some not so good plays. I think he'll get better and better with time and having him here has helped our D-line, no doubt.
Hooker: Did you think that you might be able to get a little more out of Chris Walker when you come into this season?
Wilcox: Chris is a great kid, and he has battled a little bit of that being old and he's got a little bit of that knee that's bothered him at times. Chris has just got to keep pouring it on and we need him to make some plays for us and I think he will. I think getting a rotation at defensive line is also important with Jacques Smith and Corey [Miller] and Willie Bohannon being able to rotate will help some of those other guys. But Chris, I think, doesn't have the numbers that he wants to have and he's probably had some plays that he thought he should have made and I'm the same. But he's also a guy that will continue to battle and he will make those plays and we've got to make them down the stretch.
Hooker: You seem like a guy that has the same demeanor each and every week despite whether it's a win or a loss. Does it ever become a grind when the results aren't what you want them to be?
Wilcox: Nobody wants to lose. Nobody on the planet wants to lose, and I think what's important for us - and Coach Dooley says - you aren't focused on winning and losing. You are focused on your opponent but we are more focused on ourselves and how do we prepare, how do we improve our focus, how do we improve our preparation? The biggest thing comes down to executing, whether you're playing in practice, whether you're playing Alabama or Memphis, or the Atlanta Falcons. It doesn't matter. It's all about how you execute the call and the technique and that's what is really important.
As long as we are making progress there that is what we need to be focused on, and if we do that all that other stuff comes. When you start focusing on the wrong things then you are just setting yourself up for failure. As a coach, we go into every week thinking that we are going to win the game and play well and practice well and all that, but does it always happen? It doesn't, no. But we've got to stay the course on it and the players have to stay the course on it and all of us together have to fix it and make it right. But it's not some magic pill. It's not some magic defense. It's not some magic player. It's everybody doing their job to the best of their ability so that we can go out there and execute on Saturdays and that's where it'll produce results.
Hooker: Have you been surprised by anything in the SEC this year?
Wilcox: I guess it's a two level question. Player-wise there is no doubt this is the best size and speed. The size and speed is different from any other conference I've been in, and I expected that. There are a certain number of plays that are out there in football, and we've seen those plays before. Inside/Outside zone people run that everywhere. Power: they run that everywhere.
So, I think for us it's been more execution and being consistent on those things and there is a lot that is involved with that. It's an awesome league. It really is. It's an awesome place to compete and play and to coach in. It's exciting, and for us it's about those things. It's about getting those guys to prepare well and to go out and execute well. In terms of the plays, we've seen zone read before. We've seen power before. It's no different that way.