Carolina Panthers defensive backs coach Steve Wilks has a number of quotes he recites to his players and coaches.
The most well-known of Wilks’ quotes is one from an unknown author, and he related it in a recent interview at Wofford College during training camp. It’s one that his defensive backs lived last year, and it’s one he’s gone by for most of his 19-year coaching career.
“I do it because I can. I can because I want to. I want to because you said I couldn’t.”
Wilks, entering his third season at his post with the Panthers, played at West Charlotte in the mid-1980s and coached at Johnson C. Smith in the mid-1990s before coming back to the Queen City with the Panthers in 2011.
Wilks has partnered with Panthers coach Ron Rivera in Chicago, San Diego and now Carolina to put together a top-three defense in the league at each stop.
“I really do believe he’ll be a head coach in this league, without a doubt in my mind. It’s just a matter of time before he becomes a coordinator, and he’s going to be a damn good one,” Rivera said. “He’s very detailed, very thorough. In all honesty, I almost hate doing this interview because I don’t want people to know about him, selfishly. But also, professionally, I want my friend to get an opportunity”
Wilks grew up in the Hidden Valley neighborhood of Charlotte and went to West Charlotte, where he played defensive back for the Lions. He went on to play at Appalachian State from 1987-1991 and attended the Seahawks training camp in 1992 after going undrafted. He played for the Charlotte Rage, an arena football team before trying his hand at coaching.
In 1995, he got his first coaching job with Johnson C. Smith. Current East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill had been an assistant with Appalachian State, and he recommended Wilks to J.C. Smith coach Daryl McNeill.
That’s where Wilks met current J.C. Smith coach Steven Aycock. The two assistant coaches were roommates for nearly five years, and they argued only on Thursdays.
“He is a very mild-mannered guy. He’s a very detailed and to-the-point type of guy. As a roommate he’s real laid back,” Aycock said. “But one thing he and I always bumped heads was, he always he had this particular day that we had to clean up the daggum house. It was on Thursdays. So it was ‘Clean-up Thursday.’ ”
From J.C. Smith, Wilks held the defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator roles at various schools through 2005, including a seven-year span where he coached at seven different colleges. In 2006, Bears coach Lovie Smith hired him for the same role in Chicago, and that’s where Wilks met Rivera, who was the defensive coordinator.
Despite his moves up the coaching ladder and around the nation, Wilks didn’t forget his roots.
“The one thing about it, with all his different stops, he’s always reached back to the West Charlotte community,” Aycock said. “He’s always involved at his church and the community in the West Charlotte area. He’s always giving back with helping at different camps. He’s taking care of these kids in the area which he came from.”
Wilks got more involved with West Charlotte High about two years ago when he met athletic director Chris Satterfield. Wilks has spoken to the school’s coaches at monthly professional development meetings and occasionally visits with the student-athletes.
“He’s a real example, someone who has walked in their shoes, who has gone down a path that they’re going. Who has made it out, if you want to say it that way,” Satterfield said. “He’s done well for himself, and even doing well he’s come back to help this community.”
Getting to the professional level wasn’t easy for Wilks, and his job with the Panthers has been especially difficult.
Carolina’s defensive philosophy deals with building a strong front seven and letting the secondary work itself out with undrafted free agents and cheap veterans. Last year the secondary was dubbed the “Legion of Whom,” a take on the vaunted Seattle secondary’s nickname – Legion of Boom – due to Carolina’s lack of well-known players.
Wilks told his defensive backs that any slight to them was a slight to him, as well. Carolina finished with the second-best defense in the NFL and the sixth-best passing defense in the league.
But then came attrition. Free-agent cornerback Captain Munnerlyn signed a three-year, $11.25 million deal with Minnesota and free-agent safety Mike Mitchell received a five-year, $25 million contract from Pittsburgh. Now, for a second consecutive year, Wilks has been given different parts and has been told to make them work.
“I think we have a good group here. Hopefully we can keep everybody intact coming into next year,” Wilks said. “You look at our linebacker group, you look at our defensive line, you can see the consistency there.
“I love my group; I think we have great guys. They play hard, they play together, and they go out and try to execute.”
Antoine Cason has taken the majority of first-team reps at the cornerback position opposite Melvin White. Cason played under Rivera and Wilks in San Diego in the mid-2000s, and he says Wilks was a big reason why he picked Carolina as a free agent this offseason.
“The way he approaches everything, details everything for us, puts us in good position and continues to communicate with us and ask us what we feel as well, that always helps,” Cason said. “I think that’s the reason why he has success.”
The next likely step for Wilks, after three successful stints as an NFL position coach, would be defensive coordinator. For years he’s been told that by his head coaches, but he stays humble and lives by another one of his favorite quotes: “Be big-time where you are.”
“When I came into the league, (Bears coach) Lovie Smith said, ‘You’re going to be a coordinator in this league one day,’ and I said, ‘Coach, I just want to be the best secondary coach in the NFL,’ ” Wilks said. “That’s what I’m doing with my guys. I want them to be the best secondary in the NFL. That’s my focus.”