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Who is Colts Coaching Candidate Steve Wilks?

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Carolina Panthers training camp David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/TNS via Getty Images

As the coaching search grinds on for the Indianapolis Colts, there is no shortage of opinion on who makes the best fit to lead the team. Cries echo from every corner of the fan base with their own ideas about what makes a great candidate. Josh McDaniels failed in Denver and he’s a Patriot. Matt Nagy choked in the playoffs (though it looks like he will become the Bears’ next head coach). Dave Toub is just a special teams coach. Kris Richard doesn’t have enough experience.

All those criticisms are worth investigating. Personally, I don’t think they are that valid, but I am sure Chris Ballard will address those exact same questions during the hiring process. For many of the candidates, like Texans DC Mike Vrabel, lack of experience is the major complaint. So, let’s talk about a guy who checks that box more significantly than anyone the Colts are interviewing (that we know of).

Steve Wilks is the defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers. If you are looking for a guy with the “proper” NFL trajectory to a head coaching gig, Steve Wilks has got it. His coaching background stretches all the way back to 1995 as the defensive coordinator of Johnson C. Smith University, a small private university in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Where Dave Toub had the good fortune to meet Andy Reid early on in his coaching career and Josh McDaniels was gifted the opportunity to study under one of the best coaches of all time to get his start, Wilks got no such thing. His coaching journey skipped around a lot in the early years, never spending more than a year or two at any place and looking for the chance to learn and move up. His stops included Appalachian State, Bowling Green, Notre Dame, and Washington on the collegiate circuit.

Bears vs. Jaguars John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

In 2006, he finally got his chance at the NFL. Bears head coach Lovie Smith brought Wilks in to be the defensive backs coach. Whatever you think of Lovie Smith as a head coach, he is a solid defensive mind who learned from Tony Dungy and his team consistently had good play from their defensive backs. He gave Wilks an environment to learn and grow. The Bears had a very good defense during that time and Wilks was instrumental in Charles Tillman’s formative years a before he was let go after the 2008 season.

It wasn’t long before he was in a job again, though. Ron Rivera, who had been the defensive coordinator for the Bears, had moved to the Chargers to be their linebackers coach, and worked his way to the defensive coordinator position. He called on Wilks to be his defensive backs coach there.

One year after Rivera got the call to be the head coach of the Panthers, he brought Wilks in to do that same job in Carolina. The results were very positive. From 2012-2016, the Panther’s pass defense never ranked below 11th according to Football Outsiders. In 2013 and 2015 they were ranked 3rd and 2nd respectively. This season with Wilks at the helm of the defense, the team is 9th in overall team defense.

He has had time working with quality defensive minds like Lovie Smith, Ron Rivera, and Sean McDermott, and spent the 2015-2017 seasons as an assistant head coach. That will have given him valuable experience with the kinds of responsibilities involved in the running of an NFL team.

For Rivera’s part, he sounds as though he thinks this might be the year for Wilks to take that next step and move into a head coaching role.

“I know that Steve is a hot commodity, deservedly-so,” Rivera said, via Jourdan Rodrigue of the Charlotte Observer. “He has done a tremendous job wherever he’s been, starting in Chicago and San Diego and down here with us. It’s going to be a tough one. Him and Sean (McDermott) are two very good people who are very special to this organization. We helped build this team.

“I don’t want to talk as if Steve is gone, but I have a hunch. It might be his time.”

It is important not to discount the Ballard factor as well. Chris Ballard would have worked with Wilks during his time with the Bears, and he has already talked about his role in bringing in Charles Tillman, a guy who Wilks directly coached. Players seem to like him, and the coaches he has worked with speak highly of him. Ted Ginn said this about him:

“He always has a very positive message. He’d keep reminding, ‘Make sure every day is right.’ That’s been a trademark around there,” Ginn said.

For my part, while I can appreciate the resume, I cannot quite distance myself from the feeling that his body of work feels very similar to that of Chuck Pagano. Chuck also spent a lot of time as a defensive backs coach before a one-year stint as a defensive coordinator on his way to the Colts. However, these are two different men. Wilks has had two years of experience as the assistant head coach to gain a feel for what the job entails.

Ultimately, I trust that Chris Ballard will do his due diligence, and because of his time spent working with Wilks and with a lot of the same people who did as well, I expect he will make a fully informed decision on if this is the guy the Colts should move forward with.