Allen Park — There have been seven reported candidates for the Detroit Lions coaching vacancy. The final one is expected to interview early next week when the team talks to Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks.
Like Mike Vrabel, another candidate for the opening, Wilks is wrapping up his first year as an NFL defensive coordinator, but he carries a significantly more extensive coaching resume than Vrabel.
A collegiate defensive back who played at Appalachian State prior to a short stint in the Arena League, Wilks has been coaching for 23 years, the past 12 in the NFL. He does have some head coaching experience, leading Savannah State to a 5-6 campaign in 1999.
In the NFL, Wilks has largely been tied to Panthers coach Ron Rivera. Wilks, 48, coached defensive backs in Chicago, where Rivera was the defensive coordinator. He eventually followed Rivera to San Diego, where they worked in the same roles.
When Wilks arrived in San Diego in 2009, the Chargers ranked 31st against the pass the previous year. They didn’t finish below 13th in his three seasons with the franchise and were the NFL’s best in 2010.
Rivera took the head coaching job in Carolina in 2011 and Wilks, a Charlotte native, joined him a year later, again as a defensive backs coach. And again, he led rapid improvement with the team going from 24th against the pass to 13th his first season and sixth the next.
Wilks was given the added title of assistant head coach in 2015, the same year the Panthers led the NFL in interceptions, turnovers and made it to the Super Bowl.
After defensive coordinator Sean McDermott left to become the Buffalo Bills coach last offseason, Wilks was elevated to take his place on Rivera’s staff. In Wilks’ first year in the role, the Panthers finished seventh in total defense, 11th in scoring defense, third in sacks and third against the run, propelling the team back into the playoffs after a one-year absence.
Wilks began to generate buzz as a head coaching option last season, interviewing with the Rams. The Lions are one of four teams who put in requests to talk to him this year, along with the Giants, Cardinals and Colts.
Philosophically, Wilks believes football games are won with sound fundamentals more than schematics. His preferred defense has been a 4-3, which would help the Lions avoid a significant personnel overhaul.
“One thing that I believe in, it’s not about trying to out-scheme your opponent, it’s about trying to outplay them,” he said in an interview earlier this year. “We are going to continue to focus on and emphasize the fundamentals of the game and we are going to put a quality product on the field. We are going to run to the football. We are going to create takeaways. And we’re gonna stop the run. That’s the main thing.”
Wilks’ other calling card is his intensity, which his players seem to enjoy.
“Coach Wilks, he brings a different kind of intensity to our defense,” defensive tackle Star Lotulelei said this season. “Coach Wilks, he’s not in your face, but he’s not afraid to tell you how he feels. He’s going to tell you how it is and what he expects from you.”
Wilks boils his approach down to a simple phrase.
“I’ve always said the speed of the package is determined by the speed of the leader,” he said in August.
PFT: Patricia expected to be pick
Barring any late developments, Wilks will likely be the seventh and final candidate to interview for the Lions’ job.
General manager Bob Quinn must now whittle down his options from the field, which also includes Lions coordinators Jim Bob Cooter and Teryl Austin, Vikings offensive coordinator and former Michigan State standout Pat Shurmur, Packers linebackers and associate head coach Winston Moss, Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and Vrabel.
Quinn declined to put a timetable on the hiring process last Monday, but the team is prohibited from announcing a hire of any coach from a playoff team until they’ve been eliminated.
On Saturday, Pro Football Talk reported the Lions are expected to hire Patricia.
“Per a source with knowledge of the situation, the Patriots are bracing for defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to leave, most likely to become the next coach of the Detroit Lions.”
The Patriots opened as a 13-point favorite for Saturday’s matchup with the Tennessee Titans.