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Justin Wilcox and the Future of USC Defense

After leading the Huskies to a 31-16 win over BYU in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl last night, Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox is expected to take the same position on Steve Sarkisian's staff at USC. Though it's unclear why current USC DC Clancy Pendergast won't be brought back, Wilcox has a great track record as a defensive coordinator.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

If you were ever looking for the definition of a shootout in college football, look to the box score of the 2011 Valero Alamo Bowl between Washington and Baylor. The Huskies scored 56 points that game and accumulated a total of 620 yards, but that wasn’t enough to beat Heisman winner Robert Griffin III and the Bears' high-powered offense, which scored nine touchdowns, a two-point conversion and a field goal and accumulated 777 yards in a 67-56 win.

The Alamo Bowl was the last game Nick Holt coached as the defensive coordinator at Washington. Holt, who held the position for three seasons, was formerly defensive coordinator at USC. Holt was a colleague with Steve Sarkisian at USC, and when Sarkisian was hired as the Huskies head coach before the start of the 2009 season, he brought Holt from USC up to Washington to run his defense. But by 2011, Washington’s defense gave up an average of 35.9 points a game and 453.3 yards a game, ranking the Huskies 108th and 106th out of 120 FBS teams in scoring and total defense.

Justin Wilcox was hired to replace Holt in 2012. After two seasons with the Huskies,Wilcox is expected to make the same move Holt made in 2008 by following Sarkisian to his new head coaching destination in Southern California.

The Huskies defense last night looked much better under Wilcox in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl than it did two years ago in the Alamo Bowl. Washington surrendered only one touchdown and three field goals in a 31-16 win over BYU. Though BYU boasts no Heisman winners like Baylor did, the overall performance of the Huskies defense both this season and the last two years have shown that Wilcox has helped Washington make huge strides defensively since he’s been on staff.

In 2012, the Huskies cut almost 100 yards off of their total defense average, surrendering only 357.4 yards a game and jumping from the 106th best total defense to the 31st best total defense in the country. The Huskies scoring defense jumped from 108th to 39th, surrendering only 24.2 points a game that year.

Including last night’s win, the Huskies defense gave up an average of 22.8 points and 377.1 yards a game in 2013, good for 30th and 46th in the country–though those exact standings may fluctuate slightly with some bowl games still to be played. Overall, Wilcox’s traditional numbers show a very big improvement for the Washington D during his two-year tenure.

Looking at F/+ rating, a more advanced statistic that accounts for strength of schedule, number of plays faced and other factors, the Washington defense improved from the 100th ranked defense in 2011 to the 37th ranked defense in 2012 to the 20th ranked defense this year.

Wilcox began his coaching career as a graduate assistant for Boise State in 2001 after playing defensive back for Oregon from 1996 to 1999. He was hired as a linebackers coach at Cal in 2003, then returned to Boise in 2006 to serve as the Broncos defensive coordinator through 2009.

The team consistently finished in the top 25 for both scoring and total defense during Wilcox’s four-year run in Boise, with the 2008 squad ranking third in the country for scoring defense with an average of 12.6 points a game. The Broncos went 45-4 during his run, winning the Fiesta Bowl in 2006 and 2009.

Wilcox then served as the Tennessee defensive coordinator during the 2010 and 2011 seasons.  The Volunteers struggled defensively during his first year, dropping from the 37th best scoring defense and 22nd best total defense with averages of 22.2 points and 318.8 yards per game in 2009 to 56th and 69th with averages of 25.1 points and 382.2 yards per game in 2010. However, the Vols showed great improvement in 2011, jumping back to the 36th best scoring and 27th best total defense with averages of 22.6 points and 340.5 yards a game.

Looking again to advanced statistics, Wilcox’s record shows success at both of his defensive coordinator gigs prior to Washington. The 2008 squad at Boise was ranked fourth in the country and his Tennessee squads improved from the 49th best unit to the 35th best unit according to the F/+ rating.

The numbers can tell a lot about the value of a coach or coordinator, but don’t necessarily guarantee a guy will be successful at every destination. When Wilcox’s Boise State defense ranked third in the country for scoring defense in 2008, which defense led the nation? The USC Trojans, who surrendered a mere 9.0 points a game during a 12-1 season en route to a Rose Bowl victory.

Remember who was SC’s defensive coordinator that year? Nick Holt, and the same guy Wilcox replaced in Washington two years ago after the Huskies defense completely fell apart.

The decision to bring in Wilcox as the new guy makes sense, as he has a strong resume, a good relationship with Sarkisian and runs a 3-4 Under scheme that Sarkisian is comfortable playing. However, the fact the Trojans need a new guy is a very curious decision.

Clancy Pendergast, the Trojan’s defensive coordinator this season, had by all means a fantastic year. Last year’s team surrendered 24.3 points and 394.0 yards a game under then defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, ranking 40th and 61st in the country. When Kiffin was relieved and Pendergast was brought in this year, the Trojans improved to the 19th best scoring defense and 13th best total defense in the country with averages of 21.2 points and 334.9 yards a game, well ahead of the 30th and 46th ranked scoring and total defense at Washington.

The two defenses faced very similar offenses. Washington and USC’s conference schedules were exactly the same besides USC getting Utah instead of Oregon, but Washington didn’t have to defend the nation’s leading passer in Fresno State’s Derek Carr or the nation’s leading rusher in Boston College’s Andre Williams out of conference.

Pendergast had much less depth on defense due to the scholarship restrictions, but probably had more NFL-level talent at his disposal than Wilcox. How much impact either of those coaches had on the level of talent they recruited for their respective defenses is hard to quantify with such short windows.

Pendergast had two years remaining on his contract at USC, so the issue is not that he and the athletic department couldn’t agree on a number for his salary next year, but rather whom Sarkisian wanted more. Sarkisian said in a press conference that he wanted to run a 3-4, not a 5-2 like Pendergast ran all year, but the two schemes are actually very similar as they both call on hybrid defensive end/outside linebackers instead of the traditional four down lineman formations to counteract the speed of spread offenses.

So while Sarkisian still has a couple of questions to answer about how exactly his staff will look next year, the hiring of Wilcox almost leaves more questions unanswered. But the Trojans will be armed with competent and capable defensive coordinator in Wilcox to complement the offensive-minded Sarkisian, and only time will tell if it was really the best move for the Trojan defense.