Justin Wilcox’s USC defense has been getting it done — but now comes Oregon

Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and the USC defense faces a resurgent Oregon offense that averages a Pac-12 leading 41.8 points and 532.6 yards a game.

Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and the USC defense faces a resurgent Oregon offense that averages a Pac-12 leading 41.8 points and 532.6 yards a game.

(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Justin Wilcox grew up in Oregon, played quarterback for a state championship high school team and then was a cornerback and safety for the Oregon Ducks.

Wilcox’s father, uncle and brother also played at Oregon.

Yet USC’s defensive coordinator is anything but misty-eyed on the eve of USC’s first game at Oregon since 2011.

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Ask him about returning to Autzen Stadium with the Trojans and there is no hint about a homecoming.

“I see friends and family when we have time off,” he said Wednesday.

Pressed, Wilcox politely declines to talk about himself.

“It’s never about a player, a coach — even the greatest players of all time at either place — it’s not about them,” he said. “It’s about the team. It’s especially not about some assistant coach.”

Most of the focus going into Saturday’s game will be on Trojans interim Coach Clay Helton, who has guided USC to four consecutive victories while making a case to become the permanent head coach.

But Helton’s fate, to a large degree, is also in the hands of Wilcox, who must figure out a way to neutralize a resurgent Oregon team that averages 41.8 points and 532.6 yards per game.

Helton lauded the defensive adjustments made in USC’s Nov. 7 comeback victory over Arizona, and the Trojans gave up only one second-half touchdown in last week’s 27-24 comeback victory against Colorado.

USC has mostly neutralized opponents’ rushing attacks while producing 19 sacks and 10 turnovers in the last five games.


Oregon will be Wilcox’s biggest challenge, one a USC defensive coordinator has not had to face since 2012.

Many USC fans rued that former coach Steve Sarkisian did not retain defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast after Sarkisian was hired, citing a USC defense that statistically ranked as the conference’s best in 2013. However, USC did not play Oregon or Washington — the top offenses in the Pac-12.

Wilcox, 39, faced criticism from the outset and it did not dissipate after the Trojans finished 9-4 in 2014. Earlier this season, a fan created a “firejustinwilcox” website.

Social media chatter about Wilcox has calmed in the last month as USC defeated Utah, California, Arizona and Colorado. The Trojans are giving up 22.7 points a game, ranking third in the conference, and they are giving up 385.5 yards, ranking fourth.

Criticism of Wilcox will no doubt rise again if the Trojans are unable to contain Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. and a Ducks team that defeated Stanford last week for its fourth consecutive victory.

Wilcox might have more varied experience against Oregon’s offense than any defensive coordinator in college football. He has schemed against the Ducks at three previous coaching stops and is 2-3 in those games.


In 2008, when Chip Kelly was Oregon’s offensive coordinator, Wilcox helped Boise State defeat the Ducks, 37-32.

The next season, when Kelly was head coach and Mark Helfrich the Ducks’ offensive coordinator, Boise State won 19-8.

But in 2010, when Wilcox coached at Tennessee, Oregon prevailed, 48-13.

At Washington, Wilcox was 0-2 against the Ducks. Kelly guided Oregon to a 52-21 victory in 2012. Helfrich became the Ducks coach in 2013 and Oregon defeated Washington, 45-24. Both Oregon teams featured quarterback Marcus Mariota, the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner.

“Years back there were fewer formations,” Wilcox said of the Ducks’ offense. “You see a lot of the same concepts, but there’s a lot of movement.”

Helfrich also has watched defenses evolve under Wilcox.

“There are certain things that are fundamental to what they do, and then also like anybody that’s really good, which they are, they innovate and they play both to their strengths and their skill and their personnel,” Helfrich said.

“But then also they are going to try and chase the next best thing that creates problems for an offense. That’s evident here.”


USC players have attributed the defense’s improved play to the atmosphere Helton has created since replacing Steve Sarkisian. They also credit Wilcox.

Safety Chris Hawkins said the defense was “more simple” and that “there’s no question of what we’re doing.”

Wilcox has remained consistent through the tough times and the good, he said.

“He doesn’t do too much yelling,” Hawkins said. “He believes in all his players, … He makes you feel good, and when you’re down he’ll bring you aside and say. ‘I trust you. It’s all right.’

“He’s a great coach to play for.”

On Wednesday, Wilcox took several defensive linemen aside during one practice period and worked with them on fine-tuning their recognition and reaction to the read-option elements of Oregon’s scheme.

Afterward, he deflected questions about his coaching style.

“You kind of be who you are,” he explained. “Sometimes, certain people will respond to that — some guys need it a little different way. I think that’s our job as a teacher of football is knowing your student.

“If you’re true to who you are and you have principles that you believe in, you stick to those. ... No matter what your style is, they want consistency. I try to do that. I think we all can be better.”


Twitter: @latimesklein


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