Sept. 9, 2011
BY JOSH PATE
It's a gameday tradition, timed as closely as the Vol Walk or the band's Salute to the Hill. Well, sort of.
Every home Saturday, the Tennessee football team completes the Vol Walk, marches into the stadium, drops gear off at the locker room and takes a stroll onto the turf. Some players walk the length of the field to soak in a quiet stadium hours before the game. Some circle at midfield for a pregame prayer.
Justin Wilcox changes out of his suit and into some gym shorts and a t-shirt. And then he heads out for a jog. Before every home game, Tennessee's defensive coordinator gets in his pregame run with a couple of laps around the football field.
"I remember way back when one of my teachers said the best thing you can do before you take a test is get a little exercise to get your mind ready to function," Wilcox said. "So for me, it helps relax me a little bit."
The Vols typically arrive inside the stadium an hour and a half before kickoff, and there isn't much to do. Wilcox isn't the nervous type, or at least he doesn't reveal it. Instead of hidden rituals or last-minute cramming, the jog allows him to focus and compartmentalize his emotions so he's not calling the football game with cloudy decisions.
"Coaching is exciting," Wilcox said. "It's not exciting like it is being a fan. You're so invested in what's going on that you can't ride that emotional high and low. It's really a skill you've got to develop. I've had to work on it over the years in not letting things get to you. You don't want to be emotional when you're calling the game."
When the television cameras capture the Tennessee coach after an interception or a game-changing tackle and he doesn't flinch, there's a reason.
"I think the best guys out there are able to go flat-line," Wilcox said. "It's hard to do. It's definitely a skill, but you've got to because then you're more effective in calling what you practiced all week and not operating on emotion."
Wilcox, however, doesn't hide his emotions about Tennessee. He's a West Coast guy, born in Oregon and played football there. He coached at Cal and Boise State. Tennessee, though, is just a different level.
Fans are locked in when it comes to supporting the program, Wilcox said. It's those types of personalities inside and around Tennessee football that set it apart.
"When you get here, you can appreciate the history of Tennessee because you've seen it from the outside. But once you've been in it and been around the people, you really start to understand it a little bit more," Wilcox said, dropping names like Condredge Holloway and longtime staffers such as David Blackburn, Roger Frazier and Max Parrott when describing the individuals who make the program legendary. "You understand why it is such a unique, special place."
Wilcox will try to keep the Vols special on the field this season defensively.
He is faced with a front-line overhaul as the five defensive starters lost came from the line or linebacker positions. As trust is built with a handful of sophomores at key positions like middle linebacker John Propst, tackle Daniel Hood and end Jacques Smith, Wilcox is equally ecstatic about the stone-solid defensive secondary. Prentiss Waggner, Marsalis Teague and Brent Brewer all were playmakers last year in the secondary.
"Throughout the whole summer, looking at the secondary, we had 20-something guys out there," Waggner said. "So we knew coming into fall camp that it was going to be a lot of competition, and that's what it's been."
At linebacker, the coaches and the players feel more confident after spring and fall practice.
"We have a lot of young guys, three new linebackers, coming into the team and just helping out with depth," said Propst, a sophomore. "We didn't really have that last year, but this year it's a competition every day to see who's going to get to play. It's been great so far. The young guys are doing a great job coming in and helping out."
Wilcox said the comfort level comes with a year's worth of gelling as a defensive unit.
"We know who we are a little bit more," Wilcox said. "We've tweaked some things with our personnel. We can expand on some things from last year because the kids know the words and what we're trying to accomplish. You can grow on what you've done, and you can tweak some things to try and fit your personnel. We did that in the spring and tried to do that a little bit in the fall and let them go out there."
As excited as he is about his defensive backfield and as challenging as it will be to fill gaps up front and construct depth, Wilcox remains stoic as always.
Of course, no one knows what he's thinking about while he's on his jog Saturday.