Justin Wilcox, who has spent the last 10 years as a defensive coordinator at Boise State, Tennessee, Washington and USC, was officially named the school’s defensive coordinator, pending University of Wisconsin Board of Regents approval.
“During my many conversations with numerous football people that I trusted, one name kept surfacing, Justin Wilcox,” Chryst said in a statement. “I am very happy that we were able to get a quality coach like Justin to join our staff. I think he's a great fit for Wisconsin and this program is a great fit for him. His addition makes us better. He has tremendous experience at some big-time schools and has coached some really good players. He does a great job putting his players in the best situations so they can be successful.”
Wilcox, 39, spent the last two seasons as the defensive coordinator at USC. The Trojans won the Pac-12 South title this season and made a second-straight appearance in the Holiday Bowl.
In 2014, USC's defense was in the nation's top 20 in turnover margin, red zone defense and third-down conversion defense. Last year the Trojans led the Pac-12 in third-down conversion defense and scored five defensive touchdowns, good for third-best in the country.
“It is humbling to be able to work at a place with the personality and character that Wisconsin has,” Wilcox said. “The biggest draws to the program were the opportunity to work for Coach Chryst and with the rest of the staff, as well as the student-athletes that Wisconsin has in the program. Everything about the culture and tradition of the program, from recruiting, to style of play, to development of players, was appealing to me. This is a special opportunity and I am excited to get started.”
To get a breakdown of the new addition to Wisconsin’s staff, we reached out to USC beat writer Josh Webb to answer some pressing questions.
1, Where did Justin Wilcox succeed at USC?
Wilcox's time at USC was a mixed bag. On the one hand USC finished inside the top 50 in many defensive categories. They were No.41 against the run, tied for No. 13 in the nation in sacks, No. 50 in scoring defense and No. 44 in the nation in third down conversions by opponent. On paper most schools would take those defensive stats.
USC defenses were also linebacker heavy, which is something that Dave Aranda did very well at Wisconsin. Beyond that, Wilcox helped land some pretty special players at the linebacker position during his time at USC. With Wisconsin already having the cupboard stocked, it shouldn't be a difficult transition to Wilcox preferred 3-4 base. In fact, there shouldn't be much of a transition at all.
2, Where did he fail as defensive coordinator?
Time and time again the biggest issue with Wilcox's defenses was their lack of priority in defending the middle of the field. Much of that stems from USC's lack of a pass rush, which I am not convinced was entirely the fault of Wilcox. I think the defensive lines made Wilcox's defenses look more vulnerable than they've been at other stops.
Lack of pressure from USC's front seven was something that was cause for concern for the last couple years. That seems super odd to say when it was already stated earlier that USC finished T-13th in the nation in sacks, but most of those sacks were generated from the linebacker spot and very few of them came in games that mattered for USC. It is truly the finest example of a statistic that lies.
Against USC, smart teams found a way to set the edge of the field before picking apart the middle. Wisconsin did this to great effect in the Holiday Bowl; they worked the left side of the USC defense before opening up the passing game for Joel Stave in the second half. The funny part about Wisconsin's victory is that Wilcox had already been relieved of his duties when the Badgers used the same strategy to beat USC in San Diego.
3, What was the main reason Clay Helton decided to fire Wilcox and a number of defensive coaches prior to the bowl game?
To be quite frank, the results just weren't good enough. The strategy for beating USC had almost become formulaic. Let the Trojans beat themselves on offense, contain their running game and don't let JuJu Smith-Schuster get free.
Chris Wilson came over from Georgia and it was probably expected that his defensive lines would be aggressive and ready to control the line of scrimmage. That never came to pass and we only ever saw flashes of what guys could do on the line. That lack of pressure played a big role in allowing opposing offenses to dictate the pace of play, as well as set the tone for physicality early in the game.
Wilcox is going to take much of the heat for failing to adapt and change, but he's also been blamed for a large number of things that aren't his fault. Iman Marshall was a liability at cornerback for much of the season and teams started going away from Su'a Cravens once Cam Smith went down with a season ending injury. This has been mentioned several times already, but the lack of pressure from the line didn't exactly help matters, either.
At the end of the day, maybe Wilcox should have shown more urgency in his role as defensive coordinator. It is curious that Wilcox never fired one of his under-performing coaches. Had he done that, maybe he ends up keeping his job. Who knows what Wilcox could have done with this defense if he had pressure coming from his line and cornerbacks that weren't picking up pass interference flags several times a game. It's on Wilcox, but it's also not.
4, Where was Wilcox's recruiting area and was he a strong recruiter for the Trojans?
As a recruiter for the Trojans, Wilcox primarily focused on the Pacific Northwest and areas of Utah. He also recruited Oregon when he was at Washington. Porter Gustin is a name people might recognize. He was a standout five-star linebacker wanted by nearly every school in the country, including Wisconsin. Wilcox was one of the recruiters who helped USC stave off a late charge from Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes.
As for whether or not he was a strong recruiter, I'm afraid the answer to that isn't something that will be pleasing to the ear of Badger fans. Even going back to his time at Washington, Wilcox was not the strongest of recruiters. Of course, Nansen, Sirmon, Sark and Tee Martin were all-star recruiters, so he was able to slack off in that department without many noticing. He was sorta the closer.
Wilcox isn't afraid to get out there on the recruiting trail, but he surrounds himself with guys who can recruit and that's probably more important. Wilcox's true strength is in his ability to build a strong defense. That didn't happen at USC, but it's really the only stop he's had that didn't work out. Some fans might even look at this as Wisconsin hiring some dude that USC fired, but I don't think that's a fair representation of Wilcox or his ability. USC was a setback for him, there is no getting around that, but he succeeded everywhere else and it's likely that he will succeed again.
Wilcox's best stints were in smaller markets with a tight-knit community. Madison is going to offer him a similar setup in that he won't be constantly picked apart by the media and will have time to grow into the job. I think this is the perfect job for Wilcox to grab on the bounce and I think the pacing of the Madison community will serve him well as he transitions to the B1G.
5. What was your overall opinion of him with the way he interacted with his players?
This is a tricky question to answer. As a defensive coordinator at USC, Wilcox came in and replaced a beloved figure in Clancy Pendergast. Whether or not Pendergast would have had continued success if he had remained the DC at USC is an unanswerable question, but the fact that Wilcox replaced a guy most people never wanted to see let go in the first place certainly never helped him get over with the USC fans.
Toward the end of Wilcox's run, it just felt like the defensive players had checked out and were tired of seeing the same old thing happen to them week in and week out. After the Pac-12 championship, it became apparent to everyone watching that it was time for a change on defense. The players embraced the change right away and you didn't see too much love lost on social media.
At the end of the day, Wilcox didn't have many negative interactions with the players. This just became a relationship that wasn't working for either party. It had run its course and wasn't going to improve. Nobody celebrated his termination, but players weren't jumping on social media to asking rhetorical life questions after his termination -- something we've seen time and again from USC players over the last five seasons of coaching changes. That probably says it all right there.
In sum, I think Wisconsin is getting a solid defensive coordinator much in need of a fresh start. I think that Wilcox will get back to his roots in Madison and will find a way to learn from his time at USC. He's a smart coach and was once one of the hottest coordinators in the land. Given that Wilcox has had far more successes than failures in his career spanning back to 2001, my guess is that he will rebound just fine and do a heck of a job for the Badgers moving forward, and he might even bring a little bit of that West Coast speed to Madison.