Continuing our Q&A with new Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.
Tell me about your defensive philosophy: What are the first things you tell your guys that need to happen?
Justin Wilcox: The first thing is you've got to develop an identity. The great thing is, from the core values Steve Sarkisian has implemented here in terms of the competitiveness, the toughness, the work ethic, those things have been ingrained in these kids. How they train, how they work, how they prepare. That is paramount to being a successful program. From our side of the ball, on top of everything Coach Sark stands for, the toughness and competing that we're going to emphasize to these kids, the big thing on defense, especially this day and age, is the execution. Effort and toughness -- you have to have those. They are non-negotiable. Unfortunately, they won't win you games. You can play with the greatest effort and the greatest toughness, but if you don't execute at a high level, you're going to play bad defense. What we need to focus on is being able to execute at a high level, down-in, down-out, up-tempo, for four quarters, even when we are tired. That's just conditioning your mind, conditioning your body. That's what we're focusing on. The scheme is important. There's no doubt. But how you execute the scheme is even more important. That's what we're focusing on this spring, getting good at what we do. There are a lot of different defenses, a lot of different ways to do things. Throughout the country, everybody's got a little bit different wrinkle. But at the end of the day, if you're a 3-4 team or a 4-3 team or a quarters team or a three-deep team, you've got to be good at what you're doing. That's what our focus is going to be. We've got to find out a little bit who we are in terms of personnel and what we think we can be good at. We're always going to be fundamentally driven. We've got to be great tacklers; we've got to be great at taking on blocks; and we've got to be great at covering people. That's what defensive football is. Whatever scheme we play, whatever coverages we play, it always goes back to tackling, taking on blocks and covering people. Those are the things that we're going to work on day-in, and day-out. You could have 800 defenses, and they could be the greatest defenses on the board, make the most sense and cover everything, but if you are not good at what you're doing, you're just flailing in the wind -- a jack of all trades, master of none. We need to find our identity of what we are going to be schematically, and then play better football. I know that sounds kind of boring but that's the truth. It's going to be fundamentals for us. And it's going to be execution.
Give me a CliffsNotes version of your scheme. It seems more teams are using 3-4, odd-front looks, and that's more your reputations, too, but you also seem kind of flexible.
JW: Yeah, that's fair to say. We're a little more 3-4, under-front, odd-front in our base downs. We've got to play more nickel and possibly some dime, depending on our personnel, because we will see a fair amount of 11-personnel, 10-personnel -- meaning one-back stuff. So we will practice that the first day, nickel and some dime, so we can try to get our best coverage matchups, which will give you more flexibility with what you can do, coverage-wise, when you have another DB out there. We need to find out, personnel-wise, throughout the spring, who we are. Who can we put the stress on? Who are the guys on our defense who we can say: This guy can win the one-on-one battles. And if we need to help protect another position, that we've got to build it around that. We'll install our base coverages out of our base group, our nickel coverages and all of our blitzes and fire zones, and then we'll kind of hone it in on what we think we'll be good at. You're going to do the scheme part of it, but we really need to practice the fundamentals and get good at it -- playing three-deep, playing quarters, playing press, taking on blocks and tackling. All those fundamental things that sometimes can get loose if you are not careful.
What have you seen on film from the guys you've got coming back: Did anything stand out?
JW: I'm excited. There's some good young talent. There are some edge player -- the Josh Shirleys, Hau'oli Jamora, [Andrew] Hudson -- those guys who are more edge-type guys. We've got some young defensive ends who we think have a chance, guys who haven't played a lot. There's a young noseguard who has flashed, Danny Shelton. You probably know about him. We've got to continue to develop our defensive ends and continue to develop in recruiting in terms of size and length. At linebacker, it's going to be very competitive there. We've got some guys who we might move around in terms of changing positions, to try to give us a little bit more flexibility at those spots. The secondary, there are some good young players. Obviously, you've got [cornerback] Desmond Trufant coming back. That's a big deal for us and we're excited for him. There will be some competition at corner. Greg Ducre, Marcus Peters, some freshmen who redshirted. At safety, you've got Sean Parker and some guys who played last year, Nate Fellner and Justin Glenn. There's a redshirt freshman who has flashed some, Travis Feeney. I'm trying not to miss anybody. The other thing is we'll play a lot of nickel, so developing that nickel position, and possibly a dime, because we have some of those body types. Again, we're trying to find out who are the best guys and who do we think gives us the best chance to win. If you get so rigid on, 'We're a 4-3 team, so we're going to play 4-3 no matter what,' but what if your fifth DB is better than your third LB, then you're kind of spinning your wheels and not playing with your best guys. We want our best guys out there.
How much can a defense improve from one year to the next? Do fans need to be patient, or do you feel like this defense can put up much better numbers than in 2011?
JW: It's hard for me to get into all that. I could stand on a soap box and say, 'We're going to do this, this and this,' but really it's going to be a product of what we accomplish this spring, in our offseason workouts and fall camp. As long as we are playing as well as we can possibly play, that's what I care about. The stats are what they are, as long as we are playing up to our capability that's what I am focused on. I don't think any of us are very patient. We want to play good defense. That's why we are here. That's what we spend our time trying to do. That's a multi-level question. For me to sit here and say, 'We're going to be here, here and here,' I have a hard time doing that.
Speaking of patience, your name is starting to pop up on lists of hot coaching candidates: How patient are you about getting a chance to be a head coach?
JW: I appreciate you saying that, but to be honest I never have thought that way. I've really not thought that way about moving jobs. I don't spend time getting involved in that part of it. All I really care about, for me, is that we are playing as good as we can play and we are coaching them as good as we can coach them and we're doing whatever is best for us for our team to be successful. That is really all that consumes me. I think once you start worrying about things that are out of your control, you are wasting time. All that drives my professional life is how we are going to play better, how are we going to improve, how are we going to coaching them better, how are we going to teach them better, how can we practice better.