Defensive gains made by Washington Huskies

He's not on the level of Boise State coach Chris Petersen, whose name by law must be associated with any opening at a Bowl Championship Series school.

But Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox is beginning to make it onto athletic director wish lists for football coaches, surfacing last month as a possible candidate at California and Colorado.

And the Huskies are paying him more money - $2.5 million over three years - than many schools, including UNLV, can offer a head coach, much less a coordinator.

People in the know are paying attention to Wilcox for a reason. He has greatly improved the Huskies' defense after just one season by insisting on being flexible rather than adhering to a stringent philosophy regardless of personnel and situation.

"I think in college football, especially, you better be able to adapt to your personnel," Wilcox said Tuesday. "I think you need to have a big-picture vision of what you want to be, but things aren't always perfect. You want to give your team the best chance to win, and that's what we've tried to do."

The numbers show marked improvement for Washington (7-5), which meets No. 20 Boise State (10-2) in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas at 12:30 p.m. Saturday's at Sam Boyd Stadium.

When Wilcox arrived after two seasons as Tennessee's defensive coordinator, improvement would have meant giving up four touchdowns per game as opposed to five.

Washington allowed 35.9 points and 453.3 yards in 2011, the nadir coming in the Alamo Bowl when the Huskies were beaten 67-56 by Baylor in a national embarrassment for both defenses.

Under Wilcox this season, Washington allowed averages of 23.8 points and 353.2 yards.

"The first game or around the second game, I knew we could get a lot better," junior safety Sean Parker said. "Every week we would have a great game plan."

So how did Wilcox do it?

He was flexible, refusing to be locked into an ideology.

He was expected to run a 3-4 set but mostly went with a 4-3.

Some players changed roles and positions. Freshmen Shaq Thompson and Travis Feeney switched from safety to linebacker.

Thompson, one of the nation's top recruits at safety, made 66 tackles, including 8½ for loss. Feeney made 67 tackles, including five for loss and four sacks.

Wilcox also instituted more man-to-man coverage, relying on his strong secondary to make plays. Opponents completed only 53.5 percent of their passes for 188.9 yards per game.

Senior cornerback Desmond Trufant broke up eight passes and became a first-team All-Pac-12 selection.

"I feel (the defense) fits how I play as an athlete," Trufant said. "Not just me, but it brings out the best in everybody on the defense."

What might be one defensive attack one week, though, would be another in the next game.

Washington put nine in the box against Stanford, daring Cardinal quarterback Josh Nunes to pass. The Huskies held then No. 8 Stanford to 170 yards passing and 238 overall in a 17-13 victory.

Wilcox said his philosophy going forward will be to remain flexible, that recruiting players for a particular system doesn't always work out.

"If you're stuck on, 'We have to do this and this,' you might not get the right guys to play a certain way," Wilcox said. "I love the kids we've got. We're going to keep recruiting hard and keep developing our players and what they do best."

■ NOTES - Boise State's Petersen won't make himself available for media interviews until Friday, and a short list of available Broncos players is expected to be provided today. ... Jacob Lusk, an "American Idol" finalist in 2011, will sing the national anthem.

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@review or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.