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Justin Wilcox: Defensive coordinator

Boise State's new defensive coordinator, Justin Wilcox, thought he had escaped from the stress of college football when he traveled to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, after his California Bears beat BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 22.

He needed a vacation.

Wilcox recorded a message on his cell phone saying he would check his messages once in a while, then turned it off.

He turned the phone back on to call family on Christmas Day, and found an intriguing present wrapped inside his voice mail.

Chris Petersen — the new head coach of the Boise State football program — wanted to chat.

Wilcox returned the call, and Petersen told the 29-year-old son of one of Boise Junior College's greatest players what he had in mind.

He wanted to hire Wilcox, the linebackers coach at Cal and a former BSU graduate assistant, to lead his defense.

Wilcox, who said he has no "grand plan" for his career, was stunned.

"It never even crossed my mind," he said of becoming a coordinator. "I wasn't looking to leave (Cal)."

Petersen told him to think about the job, and little else passed through Wilcox's brain for the next few days.

He couldn't sleep. He paced.

He called his dad for advice. Mentally, he confronted all the dilemmas the new job would force him to face — to test himself.

"I sat on the beach, had some tacos and thought, 'It sounds like a great deal,' " Wilcox said. "How could I say no to that?"

Back into the fray

He called Petersen on Dec. 28 — the day of the Broncos' MPC Computers Bowl game against Boston College — to accept. The next day, he flew back to the Bay Area. The day after that, he met with Cal coach Jeff Tedford.

And he spent New Year's Eve in Boise, diving right back into the chaos of his profession.

"Either you feel like you're ready, or you feel like you're not," Wilcox said. "As long as you're confident about having answers — whether it's making decisions in recruiting, making decisions when it's third-and-8 or making decisions when it's game planning — then you take the step and you jump in with two feet. You go in and you do it.

"There will be things that I'll screw up, probably that I'll learn from, but there's no other way to do it."

And a few highly successful folks say Wilcox will excel in his new position — from Petersen to Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory to Colorado defensive coordinator Ron Collins, whom Wilcox replaces.

"He's going to be awesome," Gregory said. "Boise State is lucky to have the guy. He's a rising star in our profession."

Gregory would know.

He was the defensive backs coach at Oregon when Wilcox played safety and cornerback.

He was the defensive coordinator at BSU in 2001, when he hired Wilcox as the defensive graduate assistant.

And he grabbed Wilcox for his Cal staff in 2003 when that two-year apprenticeship was over.

Gregory and Collins told Petersen that he should hire Wilcox. Petersen already had come to that conclusion himself.

Familiar system

On top of all of his coaching attributes, Wilcox has spent seven years as a player and coach in the same defensive system that the Broncos ran the past five years under Gregory and Collins.

"I have the utmost confidence in that guy," said Petersen, who will give Wilcox total control of the defense. "He is one of the sharpest guys I've been around."

Wilcox has possessed a knack for the mental side of football since his high school days. He has the pedigree, too, although he never talked about football strategy with his father.

His dad, former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Dave Wilcox, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000. He was a star at Boise Junior College, now BSU, in 1960 and 1961.

"I remember when I was playing, your teammates and your coaches, that's where you kind of learned things," said Dave, who had two football-playing sons. "... I always thought, 'That's their game and their team and their time.' I didn't volunteer anything."

A 'feel for the game'

Still, Dave could tell by the way Wilcox played that he had a deeper understanding of the game than most. Wilcox was a quarterback and safety at Junction City (Ore.) High School.

"He had a feel for the game, and he knew what needed to be done," Dave said.

Wilcox went to Oregon as a quarterback. The Ducks were loaded at the position, so Wilcox moved to safety after a year.

His senior year, he moved to cornerback. He didn't have flashy speed, yet he did not allow a touchdown pass all season because of his savvy.

Petersen remembers one time when Arizona sent wideout Dennis Northcutt — now of the Cleveland Browns — deep on Wilcox on three straight plays. None were successful.

"He knew where to be on the defense," Dave said. "He knew where his help was coming from. ... If he hadn't, they'd have ate his lunch."

Wilcox's smarts also showed up during his stint as a GA at BSU. Gregory put him in charge of the strong-side linebackers, an unusual amount of responsibility for a graduate assistant.

Collins worked closely with Wilcox as the linebackers coach in 2001 and the defensive coordinator/linebackers coach in 2002.

"The guy had something special going," Collins said. "You could just tell. He's very smart. He knows the defense. He relates to the kids very well. He had that presence about him."

Perfect fit for BSU

Wilcox continued to draw raves in three years as the linebackers coach under Gregory and Tedford at Cal. The only question mark when he was hired was how he would handle the recruiting trail. GAs don't recruit off campus.

"He ended up being one of our best recruiters," Gregory said.

And three years later, he became the perfect fit for Boise State.

The Broncos run a defense that has spread from former Oregon defensive coordinator Bob Foster to current Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti — both of whom Wilcox played for — to Gregory to Collins and beyond.

Wilcox learned from all of them, and now can add his own spin. The terminology and basic schemes — including a heavy emphasis on stopping the run — won't change from what BSU players already know.

A few details will.

"I watched (the MPC Bowl), and you can see all the (defensive schemes), you can call all of it," Wilcox said. "... Everybody kind of has their own twist on it, but it's all from the same tree."

Wilcox is the newest branch.