Originally Published: August 2, 2018 9:41 p.m.
GLENDALE — At the start of some practices, Arizona Cardinals coach Steve Wilks calls out the name of one defensive player and one offensive player to go at it one-on-one in front of everyone else.
Once it was left tackle D.J. Humphries against defensive end Chandler Jones. Another time defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche took on right guard Justin Pugh.
“I like it a lot,” Humphries said. “It’s like old school, Pop Warner stuff.”
A week into Wilks’ first training camp as an NFL head coach, an overriding theme has been tough, physical play, especially on the offensive line.
“Really it comes back to my defensive background,” Wilks said before the team took the field for another practice in pads Thursday. “There’s nothing more demoralizing than having an offense just run the ball. Coming off the ball up front, being physical, it just really takes the air out of you.”
While most of the training camp takes place in the air-conditioned comfort of University of Phoenix Stadium — the Cardinals’ regular- season home — Wilks moved the team outside into the desert heat for practice on Tuesday. They’ll be outdoors again Friday.
“Hopefully it’s a little hot out there so we can make sure we’re locked in and focused,” he said.
Wilks believes battling the heat helps build mental toughness.
“It’s all about mental with me. These guys have the skill set. They’re physical. They work out all the time. They train their bodies. It’s about this here,” he said, pointing to his head, “and being outside creates that element, particularly in the heat.”
Wilks has spent his NFL coaching career on defense, with stints as secondary coach for the Chicago Bears, San Diego Chargers and Carolina Panthers. Last year, he was promoted to defensive coordinator in Carolina and, after just one season, was hired to replace the retired Bruce Arians in Arizona.
Arians was all about offense, the big-play “no risk it, no biscuit” approach. Wilks, by contrast, wants a team that runs the ball with authority and a defense that just as naturally stops the run up front.
“We get pretty physical out there,” Humphries said. “Our defensive line, both of us know what we’re trying to do, what we’re trying to get done. It’s something that’s being preached to us and it’s something that we’re soaking up and buying into for sure. Most of us it’s second nature. We don’t have no softies on the O-line. Most of us, it ain’t hard to get us going, so it’s good fun.”
Defensive players appreciate a coach with roots on that side of the ball.
“It’s great,” said safety Antoine Bethea, a 13-year NFL veteran. “He gets it. Not saying other coaches don’t, but him being on the defensive side of the ball the majority of his career, he just gets what it means to be a defensive player, coming downhill, attacking.”
But it’s the offensive line that’s been singled out for praise by Wilks for its physical approach early in camp.
And the line loves the idea of blowing open holes for David Johnson, one of the NFL’s best running backs who returns after missing virtually all of last season with a fractured wrist.
Offensive linemen, in general, love to run block.
“It’s different when you’re locking a guy up in pass (blocking). You get them frustrated,” Humphries said. “But when you block a dude, you pound on him during the run game, you demoralize them. You take their heart. “