CHARLOTTE – Head coach Ron Rivera's right-hand man has been handed the responsibility of leading the Panthers' defense.
Steve Wilks, the Panthers' assistant head coach the past two seasons, has been named defensive coordinator. The position had been held the past six seasons by Sean McDermott, who left to become head coach of the Buffalo Bills.
"Sean was well overdue for the opportunity that he received. He's ready for it. I'm excited for him, and I'm excited for myself," Wilks said. "I'm ready to step into this role and continue to do the things we've been doing and trying to get this defense back in the top five, top 10."
Facing a rash of injuries and growing pains in the defensive backfield last season, the Panthers ranked 21st in the NFL in total defense. But from 2012-15, Wilks and the rest of the defensive coaching staff – which is expected to remain intact – played a prominent role on units that ranked among the NFL's top 10 every year.
"As I sat around and talked to the defensive coaches earlier, I was telling those guys that this wasn't Sean's defense; this was our defense. We all had a hand in it," Wilks said. "We're not going to change anything scheme-wise. We'll stick with the 4-3. We're going to (add wrinkles) and do a few things in the offseason just like we always do after you evaluate the tape and figure out ways to improve. But overall, the scheme isn't going to change."
Wilks has been Carolina's secondary coach since his arrival in 2012. Last season, in charge of a young group of defensive backs, he helped the Panthers tie for the NFC lead with 17 interceptions. The year before, the Panthers paced the NFL with 24 interceptions.
A Charlotte native, Wilks took over a unit in 2012 that ranked 24th in pass defense the previous season. The Panthers ascended to 13th in Wilks' first season, then to sixth the next season while winning the first of three consecutive NFC South championships. During his five seasons directing the secondary, Carolina defensive backs returned 13 interceptions for touchdowns - tied for most in the NFL over that span.
Prior to the 2015 season, Wilks added assistant head coach to his title but will no longer serve in that role. He coached with Rivera in San Diego from 2009-10 and in Chicago in 2006 – the year Wilks debuted in the NFL after 11 seasons on the collegiate level that included three stints as a defensive coordinator.
Wilks, who attended West Charlotte High School and played at Appalachian State, began his coaching career just down the road from Bank of America Stadium at Johnson C. Smith as defensive coordinator in 1995 – the same year the Panthers debuted.
"It's special in general because I'm one of 32 (defensive coordinators in the NFL), and to have it the opportunity to do it here at home, it's almost surreal," Wilks said. "I'm very fortunate, very blessed to be working with a great organization. I can recall when I was young working at Johnson C. Smith - cutting the grass, washing the clothes – dreaming of an opportunity like this one day to coach with the Carolina Panthers.
"I'm looking forward to the challenge and the opportunity."