MADISON – One of Justin Wilcox’s first tasks after being named Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator in January was to study his flash cards with each defensive player’s name, number and position. He’s accomplished that with his defense, so the goal now is to inject his knowledge to make sure the unit doesn’t suffer a drop off.
Through three days of spring practices, Wisconsin – by design – has gone heavy on individual drills and position work, allowing Wilcox to work on installing his terminology and marrying terms and schemes the group is familiar with.
“It’s constant communication,” said Wilcox after Thursday’s practice. “There are some things that will stay the same and some things that will be a little bit different, but I don’t envision that being an issue. Spring ball goes back to the fundamentals. The verbage will come, and they’re smart. They understand football and will continue to understand it better and better. We want to be experts at our position, learn the situations of football and those are things we’re focused on this spring.
Wisconsin is the sixth coaching stop and fifth as a defensive coordinator for Wilcox, who is replacing Dave Aranda after Aranda left for the same job at LSU following three seasons in Madison.
Spending the previous two seasons at USC, Wilcox’s defense was in the nation's top 20 in turnover margin, red zone defense and third-down conversion defense in 2014. 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.
Now he walks into a defense that returns a loaded front seven, headlined by senior outside linebacker Vince Biegel.
“Football is a skill game,” said Wilcox. “Talent helps. Talent gives you a start, but it’s not a talent game. It’s a skill game. If you have a certain amount of talent, that has to translate into the skill of playing football … We have some talented guys on the team. It’s what you do with that talent, how you develop it and how consistent you are utilizing that talent, that’s what’s important.”
In addition to overseeing the defense, Wilcox – like his predecessor - is coaching the inside linebacker, a group that has three players who started multiple games last season in junior Jack Cichy and sophomores T.J. Edwards and Chris Orr.
Edwards was a Scout.com freshman All-American, and Cichy – who made headlines for registering sacks on three consecutive plays in the Holiday Bowl – can bounce between positions.
“Jack is a guy who did a lot of good things last year,” Wilcox said, adding Cichy will stay at inside linebacker for the time being. “He’s a very instinctive guy, slippery, hard to block, does a good job finishing plays, very competitive and can help us at a number of different spots.”
Biegel said both Aranda and Wilcox bring intense personas on the field with a lot of football knowledge, not a surprise since the two had communicated and shared ideas with each other for a number of years. While the 3-4 scheme remains virtually the same, Biegel said learning the new verbage is the high priority.
“It was a little bit of learning experience, getting a feel for him, how he coaches and how we play,” said Biegel. “I think Coach Wilcox is going to be an awesome fit for us. I’m excited about the future. I’m excited about what else he can bring to the table and make the Wisconsin defense a better defense.”
In addition to his players getting his scheme and verbage down, another focus for Wilcox is to build some depth and confidence among the secondary. Wisconsin lost three seniors and two three-year starters off last year’s roster, leaving three large gaps to fill.
Through three practices, first-year assistant coach Jim Leonhard – a UW Hall of Famer and N.F.L. veteran – is starting to build that confidence.
“He hasn’t been a ‘coach’ but he’s been doing it for so long,” Wilcox said of Leonhard. “He teaches it very, very well. He’s very clean teaching it. Some guys know it, but it’s a different thing when you have to stand up and teach it to another group. I haven’t thought for one time that he hasn’t done this before. He’s very natural teaching those guys.”
While his coaching background is on the offensive side of the ball, head coach Paul Chryst said Wilcox is more than willing to come into his office and bounce things off him and other members of the defensive staff.
“When putting together the staff, and I’ve always appreciated this as an assistant and same as a head coach, you want guys to take ownership, but it’s collective,” said Chryst. “It’s never been about one person. That’s one of the reasons why I felt Justin was a great fit. He approaches it the same way. Nobody is looking to do it on their own. I think we can all help each other. I’m going to bounce things off of him, and he’s going to bounce things off of me … I think that’s what makes you a better coach and makes you accountable.”
Extra Points: Redshirt freshman Jon Dietzen worked at the starting left guard spot for the second straight practice …. Senior Bart Houston and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibook continue alternating practices with the starters … Wisconsin closed practice with a kicking competition between classes, as redshirt sophomore receiver Ricky Finco defeated senior Dare Ogunbowale with a 40-yard kick. Jazz Peavy and Dietzen also made kicks before being eliminated … Wisconsin is off until Tuesday, March 29.