BEREA — Steve Wilks pinches himself.
When he got his shot to be an NFL head coach last year in Arizona, the defensive personnel had eroded. Reinforcements never arrived (no defensive player was drafted until No. 182 overall). He got fired after the Cardinals gave up 425 points and went 3-13.
Now Wilks, 49, is in Browns camp as defensive coordinator of a unit starring Denzel Ward and Myles Garrett.
As summer practice heats up, Wilks seems to be quite the happy camper.
He imagines results along his years in Carolina, where strong defenses were part of an NFC title team in 2015 and 11-5 team in 2017.
A former defensive backs coach, Wilks sees his shutdown cornerback, Ward, as worthy of his No. 4 overall draft status.
“The No. 1 thing that stands out is the speed,” Wilks said after Thursday’s practice. “He can run with anybody. He has the ability to cover, really, all of the best receivers we’re going to go against.
“Corners can be really inconsistent with their tackling. This guy loves to step up there and get physical. I know he had the issues last year with concussions. Now it’s about how we teach tackling.”
As a rookie Pro Bowler in 2018, Ward played more than 99 percent of the defensive snaps through the first eight games.
He suffered a concussion on the eighth play of Game 9, against the Chiefs, left the field with another concussion midway through Game 12 at Houston, and sat out Games 13, 14 and 16.
Both Wilks and Ward seem convinced he can adjust his style to avoid concussions.
“He’s one of the elite players in the league,” Wilks said. “What we need out of him is consistency.”
Ward, 22, might wind up with 21-year-old rookie Greedy Williams as his running mate. Williams has held his own while getting plenty of work against Odell Beckham.
“I like (Williams’) body language,” Wilks said. “He can run with Odell. He has good change of direction. And the last couple days, he’s stepping up in the running game.”
Williams’ reputation for soft tackling dropped him to No. 46 overall in this year’s draft.
As for Garrett, who as a former No. 1 overall pick is supposed to handle everything, Wilks loves what he is seeing.
“Myles is extremely quick off the ball,’ Wilks said. “We know he can rush the passer. I’m really impressed right now with how he’s playing the run.
“We talk about that all the time. We’ve got to do a great job stopping the run first.”
Wilks said he is fired up by the way defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson looks as an interior defender. The other D-line starters are Olivier Vernon at end and Larry Ogunjobi.
“I’m excited about the guys up front,” Wilks said. “You can see it’s going to be the strength of our team, not only the defense, but really the team.”
A camp curiosity has been Wilks frequent use of a 4-2-5 look, with four linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs.
“You have to understand where the game is now,” Wilks said. “Offenses are putting more speed on the field, so you want to match that speed.
“We see some guys as safety/linebacker, guys who can play in the box and play in space.”
Wilks mentioned Sheldrick Redwine, Jermaine Whitehead and Juston Burris as safety/linebacker types. Redwine is a rookie fourth-round pick whose hard hits gave him a reputation for causing fumbles for the Miami Hurricanes. Whitehead spent parts of the last three seasons with the Packers. Burros was a fourth-round pick by the Jets in 2016 who has played in 39 NFL games.
Wilks said working against athletic tight end David Njoku, when he is split wide, is the type of matchup intended to be addressed by a 4-2-5.
Wilks is working with two rookies who could be important in linebacker depth.
Of third-rounder Sione Taktitaki, Wilks said, “He’s swimming a little, but he’ll get it. He’s physical. I like that.”
Of fifth-rounder Mack Wilson, Wilks said, “I love his athleticism. He plays well out in space.”
The Browns have made plenty of defensive personnel changes since Gregg Williams was let go and Wilks was hired. Another thing that must change, Wilks said, is run defense. The 2018 Browns ranked 28th in allowing 135.2 rushing yards a game.
Wilks himself is as big a question mark as any on defense.
The team of which he was head coach last year, Arizona, ranked last in the NFL in run defense at 154.9 yards a game.
The unspoken thought is that he has much better players in Cleveland than he inherited in Arizona.