Steve Wilks’ career will crescendo on Sunday afternoon, when he roams the sideline at State Farm Stadium during the Cardinals’ regular season opener against the Redskins.
He is one of only 32 people on the planet that can currently lay claim to the title of NFL head coach, a fraternity so small that joining it naturally sounds like the culmination of a lifelong dream.
Wilks, though, cannot label his ascension as such. Twenty-three years ago, he never imagined something like this.
“Man, I was just trying to get through the day,” said Wilks, whose career began in 1995 as the defensive coordinator at Division II Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Particularly where I started, with so many limited resources. We didn’t have a lot. It could be anything from lining the field to washing the clothes. But I loved the game so much and I put a lot of time and passion into it.”
It wasn’t until 2004, when Wilks became an assistant under Tyrone Willingham at Notre Dame, that the expectations augmented.
“That’s when I really started seeing myself at this level,” Wilks said.
It’s been an impressive rise for Wilks, and he hopes his head coaching tenure gets off on the right foot against Washington. In order for that to happen, a revamped roster needs to play well.
Sam Bradford is the new starting quarterback, taking over for Carson Palmer, and his wide receiver core looks vastly different from a season ago. While the defense returns most of its stars, they will be playing in a new 4-3 base defensive scheme.
Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is a familiar face, but he’s not sure what to expect as the season kicks off.
“There’s a lot of new,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s exciting any time you have some changes. It kind of makes you sharpen your resolve a bit. You’ve got to focus. I don’t want to say it was easy or anything (under Bruce Arians), but when you know what to expect and what your role is, you know. And now I don’t have any clue. I have no idea on Sunday what my role is going to be, if I’m going to get any balls. All this stuff is brand new. It’s exciting.”
There will be a lot of focus on the offense in 2018, as its efficiency will play a pivotal role in the team’s fortunes. Running back David Johnson is healthy again and primed to be the focal point, but how will that manifest? He’s dangerous carrying the ball but also as a receiver.
Fitzgerald is widely expected to be the top aerial target, but whom beyond him and Johnson will step up? Tight end Ricky Seals-Jones and wide receivers Christian Kirk and Chad Williams seem like the most likely candidates.
The Cardinals kept a lot under wraps in the exhibition slate and this will be the first time new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy enters a game with his full assortment of calls.
“It’s exciting, because there are so many things we don’t show in a preseason game,” McCoy said.
The Redskins won’t know what to expect from the Cardinals offense, and the converse is true. Washington has welcomed new quarterback Alex Smith, who takes the place of Kirk Cousins. Smith is more mobile than Cousins and gets the ball out quicker.
“We know he’s very, very smart with the football,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said. “We have to force him to hold the ball with our coverage and hopefully our front four can get there.”
This game is expected to be competitive, which means head coaching decisions could be crucial. Even though Wilks didn’t dream of this position at the outset of his coaching career, he’s looked fully prepared for the role since the moment he joined the Cardinals.
While Wilks readily acknowledges there will be a flood of emotions on Sunday, he is confident they won’t affect his performance.
“When you try to let it be more than what it is, I think it can overwhelm you,” Wilks said. “I don’t want that to happen. I want guys to look at me and understand and know as a leader that I’m under control, I have poise. And I want them to play that way as well.”
Images of key players for this week's opponent, the Washington Redskins