The gray hairs would have been a perfect anecdote.
After management exchanged his best player with a pair of rookies, you could actually see six months of stress in Steve Wilks’ hair.
But the gray is just a result of being 47. And it’s not like the Panthers’ secondary coach hasn’t been asked to play musical chairs before.
“Let’s go back in my five years. Every year has been a different group,” Wilks said Thursday. “The difference is we’ve never done it with two rookies.”
It’s funny how certain storylines can be mostly ignored until they’re not. That’s not a justification for hoping your NFC championship-winning roster could survive with Josh Norman in Washington and two rookies at cornerback, but this spring was a continuation of what had become a Dave Gettleman tradition.
To understand what’s been asked of Wilks, take a look at his Week 1 starters since he came to Carolina:
Only Roman Harper began a season in the same spot he began the previous year. And of the 20 spots, just four names appear twice: Harper, Norman, Kurt Coleman and Charles Godfrey. So as painful as this season’s growing pains have been, at least Gettleman finally began to build a foundation in the secondary. And judging James Bradberry and Daryl Worley by their rookie year improvement, the makeover may work out long-term.
“I knew they had the skill set, and most importantly, those guys don’t know what they don’t know,” Wilks said. “So they’re going to listen and try to be a sponge to everything you tell them. That was a great advantage for me because I knew they were going to listen, and you can see the progress they’ve made.”
Think about Bradberry. Last fall, he opened his regular season against Mars Hill and finished with East Tennessee State. Many wondered if a small-school guy was worth a second-round pick. So of course he’d be drawn to someone he believed could help prove doubters wrong.
“When I had my Pro Day, (Wilks) was coaching me up out there at Samford and I knew from then on that he was going to be a great coach,” Bradberry said.
Then there’s Worley, who most projected as a third-day pick. With Wilks’s endorsement, the Panthers took him in the third round — on day two.
“He instills that confidence in you and he demands greatness from you every day that we’re out there at practice,” Worley said of Wilks. “He’s been a key component to not only my growth but to all of the DBs that we have.”
And to one the Panthers no longer have.
“When you look at Batman and his whole little belt, his Batarang he has around his little stomach, Wilks gave me my first tool belt,” Norman said.
“He showed me how to use different techniques and different tools that I can switch up on and use on an offensive guy if he so much threatens me, and I’ve got to give him credit for that.”
That it takes a certain amount of patience to handle Norman isn’t exactly a well-kept secret. Not all coaches could’ve found the code, but after two and a half up-and-down seasons, Wilks unlocked the enormous potential inside Norman. And that’s just one example of a fledgling player flourishing under Wilks en route to a big payday in Carolina — see: Coleman, or elsewhere — see: Captain Munnerlyn, Mike Mitchell.
“There’s a style to his coaching that I think the players respond to very well,” coach Ron Rivera said. “I think that’s why over the past few years we’ve been able to piecemeal our secondary because the way he handles his guys.
“That’s why I think he was really good for Josh and I think that’s why he’s been really good for the young corners that we’ve had.”
Wilks, a Charlotte native who played defensive back at Appalachian State, began his coaching career bouncing around eight colleges in 11 years. He broke into the NFL as the Bears’ defensive backs coach in 2006, Rivera’s final season as Chicago’s defensive coordinator.
In 2009, Rivera asked Wilks to join him in San Diego, where they had the same titles.
Then, three years after reuniting in Carolina, Rivera named Wilks assistant head coach. That meant additional duties that don’t sound all that exciting but could act as important rungs up the coaching ladder.
“Running the team meeting, running practice, scheduling, those kind of things,” said Wilks, who took charge at training camp last year when Rivera had to leave for two days following the death of his brother.
“Being in front of the group, running the coaches’ meetings, all of that stuff is a plus.”
If it sounds like Wilks is willing to angle for an opening elsewhere, it’s because he is. But his résumé won’t mean much if he takes his eye off his current focus.
“It’s just like a DB. If he’s trying to find the ball instead of defeating the receiver in front of him, all of a sudden he ends up on the ground. So my thing is I’m going to defeat what’s in front of me first,” Wilks said. “Eventually, I’m going to end up getting to the ball, getting to that head coaching position, but I’m not going to sit here and overlook that because I want to take care of what I have first.”
Because coordinators tend to be ahead of position coaches in the coaching carousel’s pecking order, Wilks may need to take one more step before he gets a top job. But he’s ready to make an argument if a call comes from a team looking for a head coach.
“People speculate you’ve got to go through the process of being a coordinator, but a lot of what we’ve done in the past and what we do I’m heavily involved in the game plan,” Wilks said. “(Defensive coordinator) Sean (McDermott) makes the final decisions, and he does an outstanding job calling the game, but I have experience there. And I have experience being in front of the team and leading it.
“So I definitely think I’m ready. It’s just about opportunity when it comes.”