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In leading CU Buffs defense, Chris Wilson leans on experience

New coordinator will work with strong coaching staff

Assistant coach, Chris Wilson, during the ...
Assistant coach, Chris Wilson, during the University of Colorado Football Spring Showcase on April 30, 2021.

Following a one-year stint as a defensive assistant with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals in 2019, Chris Wilson was contemplating a break from coaching.

“I think in this industry, when you’ve been doing this a long time, sometimes it’s good to take a break,” said Wilson, now in his 28th season as a coach. “(After 2019), we were in that process of deciding if we want to just be still for a little bit and just kind of take a little time to recover.”

The break didn’t last long, as he was hired in the spring of 2020 to coach the Colorado defensive line. Now going into his second year with the Buffs, Wilson is adding the duties of defensive coordinator.

With his first spring as coordinator behind him and the next season quickly approaching – CU opens the campaign Sept. 3 against Northern Colorado at Folsom Field – Wilson is leaning on his past experience and a strong cast of coaches to help the Buffs become a better defense.

“It definitely is a great opportunity,” he said of being a coordinator, while quickly adding it is a group effort with Demetrice Martin (cornerbacks coach), Brett Maxie (safeties), Brian Michalowski (outside linebackers) and Mark Smith (inside linebackers).

“My deal, at the end of the day, is making sure we’re organized and we’re clean teachers, and we all play a big significant role in it. Sometimes (the coordinator is) the guy who just takes the heat if it doesn’t go well. But … it’s an exciting opportunity.”

This is Wilson’s second turn as a coordinator, as he held that role at Mississippi State from 2010-12. Since then, he’s been at Georgia, Southern California, the Philadelphia Eagles – where he helped win Super Bowl LII – and the Cardinals.

In early 2020, former CU head coach Mel Tucker brought him in for an interview. Wilson, who coached the Buffs’ defensive line from 2000-04, was certainly interested in a return to Boulder, but shortly after interviewing, Tucker bolted and took the head coaching job at Michigan State.

When CU hired Karl Dorrell as head coach on Feb. 23, 2020, Wilson interviewed again.

“We’ve known each other for a long time and had mutual friends, but never worked together,” Wilson said. “I had a chance to come back to Colorado. So for me, it was a no-brainer.”

For Wilson, whose son, Caleb, plays tight end for the Eagles and daughter, Colby, plays college soccer, the return to CU has been energizing.

“It’s been fantastic,” he said. “You can see the evolution of the program; you can see that the institution is really doing a great job. The university is doing a great job of just supporting athletics in general. … You just see the place thrive and the new facilities that we have here, which are second to none. So it’s really a great time to be a Colorado Buffalo.”

Wilson is also enjoying a role in Dorrell’s efforts to build the program. The Buffs snapped a string of three consecutive losing seasons in 2020 to go 4-2 and reach the Alamo Bowl in a campaign cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“He sets a really good foundation for his coaching staff,” Wilson said. “It’s very clean. It’s concise. You walk in here knowing what the expectation is and the standard is and it’s been refreshing to have a guy who understands how to build a program. That’s the thing that you see from his years of experience. … In these journeys, you learn a lot about yourself, and then how you’d like to see your program go.”

Much like Dorrell as a second-time head coach, Wilson is hoping to be a better coordinator this time around.

“That’s the one thing that doesn’t change is your ability to have self-awareness,” he said. “We all have areas of growth. Since the last time I did it … you pick up a lot of things that you can add to your toolbox and you’re also able to eliminate some things that you wish you would have experienced back then to know differently. It definitely plays a role, having that experience behind you.”

A second stint at CU has been the 14th stop on Wilson’s coaching journey. He’s happy to be back in Boulder but thankful for each of the opportunities along the way.

“The thing that I think you benefit from is the network of people you have to be able to pull from,” he said. “You learn a lot of different ways to measure success, a lot of different ways of teaching. And I think it helps you to become better as you grow. I’ve been fortunate to be around some really good coaches during this process and some really good institutions.”


Walk-on quarterback Grant Ciccarone, who spent much of the spring working third on the depth chart, has put his name into the NCAA transfer portal and is no longer on the Buffs’ roster. Ciccarone, from Cherokee Trail High School, played two seasons with the Buffs and did not appear in a game.