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Getting Physical: Steve Wilks Builds Culture In First Camp

Coach Steve Wilks oversees practice Tuesday as the Cardinals got in some work outside.
Coach Steve Wilks oversees practice Tuesday as the Cardinals got in some work outside.

D.J. Humphries was thinking back to last year, when the Cardinals had a practice outdoors during training camp.

“When we went outside last year, I don’t know what time it was, but it felt like whatever time the devil comes outside to make sure everything’s straight,” the left tackle said.

The heat is a given this time of year in Arizona. That didn’t change Tuesday morning, when first-year coach Steve Wilks took the Cardinals again outside. The temperature wasn’t terrible – holding under 100 degrees – although the humidity made the back end of the work a bit nasty.

But the whole point is part of Wilks’ overall plan, both of his first camp and his overall culture.

The Cardinals head into their first off day Wednesday with a pair of padded practices out of the way, one of four planned outdoor practices down and a much different schedule from how previous coach Bruce Arians installed.

“What I wanted to do, particularly being a first-year head coach, I wanted to set the tone and my philosophy and what I believe in,” Wilks said. “You can’t just talk physicality, you have to create what you are going to be about.”

The Cardinals are holding a handful of morning practices to start getting ready for games in the East, and even on the days when the team practices in the afternoon, Wilks starts his walkthrough at 8 a.m. to get the players in the mindset of early football.

The day is dotted with meetings, creating a tempo for players that extends beyond practice. The relax and recovery time is in the evening moreso than in the middle of the day as it had been with Arians.

“It’s different than the B.A. era, but every coach as their own way, and we are getting used to the way Coach Wilks does it,” guard Evan Boehm said.

The players got a general idea of the transition during the offseason – it was impossible not to see how Wilks moved often from position to position in individual work, studying every spot even with his background as a defensive coach – but it has moved to overdrive in camp.

The word used by many of the players who already worked under Wilks in Carolina has been “respect” – as in how Wilks commands respect. Defensive tackle Corey Peters also said there are small differences, pointing out that Arians, as an offensive-minded coach, oftentimes judged the overall result of practice on whether the offense did well or did poorly.

“Coach Wilks is more defensive-minded I think, but he does a good job staying balanced,” Peters said. “A good day is the offense wins some and the defense wins some.

“Whenever any new coach comes in, it’s always important to wipe the slate clean and set the tempo for the way you want things to be run.”

Wilks is still setting the tone. He wants the outdoor practices not only to condition in the heat, but also for players to be able to adjust to something different.

It doesn’t mean things are perfect. Tuesday, Wilks was unhappy with the physical nature from the defense, noting that defenders were still “tagging up” on tackles instead of “thudding” the ballcarrier. That could cost them yards in real games, Wilks said, and was pleased defensive coordinator Al Holcomb ran a tackling circuit for that side of the ball post-practice – even though it meant extra time in the muggy heat.

“(Wilks) said something to us the other day, telling us we’re kind of taking it easy on each other sometimes,” Humphries said about his battles with Pro Bowl defensive end Chandler Jones. “You know how that goes. At that point, me and Chandler kind of looked at each other like, ‘Alright.’

“I thought we were going pretty hard, but obviously this guy thinks there is more in the tank from us. He wants to see us take it up a notch.”

For Wilks, that’s the whole point of training camp.

“You’ve got to find out who your dogs are,” safety Tre Boston said. “I see a lot of guys in this locker room who have that on their face. You got a 90-man roster, who do you pick off who you take to war with you in Week One?”

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