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The calm after the storm

Justin Wilcox is the man tasked with turning around a UW defense ranked 106th in the country last season. Photo by Joshua Bessex

It was the second practice of spring football, and UW cornerback Tre Watson had just got beat.

The man Watson was responsible for covering was celebrating in the end zone. And Watson’s new coach, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, was making a beeline for his player.

It was a scene that has unfolded too many times over the past three seasons for Husky head coach Steve Sarkisian’s liking, his defense trying to figure out where it all went wrong. This time, though, there was a change in the script.

When Wilcox reached Watson, he patted the senior on the head. He put his arm around his shoulder, pulled him to the side, and calmly explained what Watson had done wrong.

There were no screams, no curses that echoed out across Lake Washington. That’s not the way Wilcox, a mild-mannered man in a hot-tempered profession, takes care of business.

“He’s a great teacher,” UW defensive end Josh Shirley said. “He will teach you what you need to do, give you as many examples as you need until you get it down.”

Sarkisian fired former defensive coordinator Nick Holt and three of his assistants Dec. 30, 2011, and hired the 35-year-old Wilcox away from Tennessee four days later. The pair quickly put together the rest of a new-look defensive staff, made up of Wilcox’s college teammate Peter Sirmon at linebackers coach, former Oregon State staffer Keith Heyward guiding the defensive backs, and recruiting whiz-kid Tosh Lupoi leading the defensive line.

The quartet has only had four practices on the new job, but the difference between their coaching style and that of their predecessors is already apparent.

“It’s not as hectic as it was last year,” senior cornerback Desmond Trufant said. “They’re just really teaching us now. Even if we make a mistake, they’re just teaching us what we did wrong, and we’re moving on to the next play. That’s what I like a lot.”

That easy disposition Wilcox has brought to the UW was bred in an unusual place for the man tasked with saving the Husky defense: Eugene, Ore., home of the Ducks, where Wilcox was born, raised, and played his college ball.

The son of Dave Wilcox, a Hall-of-Fame linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers in the ’60s and ’70s, the younger Wilcox quarterbacked Junction City High School to a state championship in his junior year. He parlayed that success into a scholarship to Oregon — also his dad’s alma mater — where he switched to defensive back and became a stalwart in the secondary during the Ducks’ rise from obscurity to national prominence.

After the briefest of stints in the NFL, Wilcox dove headfirst into coaching, a profession that took him from one college hamlet to another: from Boise, Idaho, to Berkeley, Calif., back to Boise, and finally to Knoxville, Tenn., where he led the Volunteers’ defense for two seasons.

And then Sarkisian came calling.

“I wasn’t looking to leave there by any means,” Wilcox said in February. “Just when this came up, I had a very strong feeling about it, a strong feeling about the people here. … It was something that was a very clean, easy decision, obviously being from the Northwest had a part in that and my family being somewhat close. At the end of the day, it’s about the people, and that’s what made it easy.”

The changes Wilcox will bring to the UW are already apparent through four spring practices. After spending the three years of Holt’s tenure almost exclusively playing a 4-3 defense, in which a team lines up with four down linemen and three linebackers, Wilcox has implemented his preferred 3-4 alignment, with three linemen and four rangier, quicker players roaming the defense’s middle.

The biggest beneficiary of the switch may very well be Shirley, who capped a stellar freshman campaign last season with three sacks in the UW’s 67-56 Alamo Bowl loss. On most snaps, you can now find Shirley standing up on the edge as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 rather than with his hand on the ground as a defensive end.

“It enables me to see what’s going on,” Shirley said of the change, “to be able to open up my vision, keep my head on a swivel, and just know what’s going on.”

From the start, Wilcox made it apparent that times were changing. He declared every starting position wide open upon his arrival, something that has only been reinforced so far through the spring. But there may be no greater change than the one Tre Watson and everyone else saw on the second day of spring.

“The energy that they’re bringing, and the positivity, encouraging [the] guys,” senior safety Justin Glenn said. “If you mess up, that’s OK. Keep going, keep going. I really like the direction they’re bringing us.”

Reach Sports Editor Kevin Dowd at sports@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @kevindowd

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