Johnson C. Smith University is less than 2 miles from the wooden podium at which Steve Wilks stood in Bank of America Stadium on Friday morning.
But now, Wilks might as well be a million miles – and a hefty pay bump – away from the place where he washed clothes, cut grass and served as defensive coordinator 20 years ago.
The Carolina Panthers’ secondary coach, a Charlotte native, was named the team’s new defensive coordinator Friday, a corresponding move to the departure of Sean McDermott to become head coach at Buffalo earlier this week.
“When you really look at it as a whole, it’s special in general,” he said. “I’m one of 32. And then to have the opportunity to do it right here at home, it’s sometimes surreal. I am fortunate, I’m very blessed and I’m working with a great organization.
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“I can recall back when I was young, back working at Johnson C. Smith, back cutting the grass, washing the clothes, and dreaming of this opportunity of one day having the chance to coach here with the Carolina Panthers. So I’m extremely excited. I’m looking forward to the challenge and the opportunity.”
While Wilks’ life has changed, Carolina’s scheme won’t – the Panthers will still run a 4-3, but Wilks will add in a few “wrinkles” of his own.
I sat around with all the defensive guys and I was telling them earlier, you know, ‘This wasn’t (just) Sean’s defense. This was our defense. And we all had a hand in it.
“I’ve been a part of this defense for the last five years,” he said. “I feel like I’ve had a major part in the input and shaping this defense and doing the things that we’re doing today. ... I sat around with all the defensive guys and I was telling them earlier, you know, ‘This wasn’t (just) Sean’s defense. This was our defense. And we all had a hand in it.
“I don’t anticipate us missing a beat.”
In the week or so before Wilks’ promotion, he interviewed with Los Angeles (for a head coaching position) and Washington (for a defensive coordinator job), before ultimately working out a deal with the Panthers following McDermott’s departure. Wilks said he expects the staff to stay intact throughout the offseason and into the fall, and his first step in his new role has been maintaining the continuity.
Linebackers coach Al Holcomb was thought to be a candidate to become McDermott’s defensive coordinator in Buffalo, but Leslie Frazier has since been named to the position. A secondary coach has yet to be hired but that will happen in the next couple of days, Wilks confirmed.
To Wilks, it’s important to keep many of the same qualities he has in whoever comes in as the new secondary coach.
“A guy that is an outstanding teacher, a great communicator that understands the fundamentals and techniques of the game, but also understands how to manage people,” he said.
Part of Wilks’ philosophy is developing the players as people, as well as maintaining the high expectations of the defense on the field.
“It’s easy to develop the player when you know how to develop the person,” he said.
“One thing that I believe in (is that) it’s not about trying to out-scheme your opponent, it’s about trying to outplay them. We are going to continue to focus on and emphasize the fundamentals of the game and we are going to put a quality product on the field. We are going to run to the football. We are going to create takeaways. And we’re gonna stop the run. That’s the main thing.”