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Steve Wilks knows he’s earned a great opportunity with Cardinals

He joins the small club of coaches of color who have led NFL teams

INDIANAPOLIS — In one of his first public duties as the new Arizona Cardinals head coach, Steve Wilks addressed reporters Wednesday at the NFL combine.

Wilks appeared at ease doing what coaches do best at this time of year, sidestepping questions about the Cardinals’ plans in both free agency and the draft. Yep. Wilks already has mastered that part of the job.

His performance in other areas, as well as how Cardinals players fare under him, will ultimately determine how long the newest member of the league’s fraternity of coaches of color remains on the job. Hired on Jan. 22, Wilks, who is African-American, will be one of eight head coaches of color to start next season.

That’s the most head coaches of color the league has had in any season, matching 2011 and 2017 (after last season, the Detroit Lions fired head coach Jim Caldwell). On the other hand, the fact that only one-fourth of the head coaches are minorities, in a league in which about 70 percent of the players are African-American, is among many clear signs that the NFL has a hiring problem.

Wilks knows it.

“The biggest thing is trying to look at the process of hiring the best guy,” he said. “Hopefully, at some point and time, we can get to that point.”

The Cardinals got the guy they wanted.

In picking Wilks to succeed Bruce Arians, who retired, Cardinals team president Michael Bidwill turned to a veteran defensive coach. A member of the Tony Dungy coaching tree (he began his NFL career under Lovie Smith), Wilks had an impressive run with the Carolina Panthers. As the defensive coordinator last season, he helped the team rank third against the run and seventh in total yards.

Wilks takes command of a team that finished third in the NFC West at 8-8, has missed the playoffs the past two seasons and enters the league year without a quarterback on its roster. It appears the Cardinals must rebuild. That established, Wilks has earned a great opportunity, joining the small club of black and brown men who have led NFL teams.

He knows that too.

“You look around … [Denver Broncos head coach] Vance Joseph was just up here [on a temporary stage],” Wilks said. “You look at [Cleveland Browns head coach] Hue Jackson, [Pittsburgh Steelers head coach] Mike Tomlin.

“You look at those guys. But most importantly, [you look] at the ones that have come before you: Tony Dungy. I had a very fortunate opportunity to start my career under Lovie Smith.”

And Wilks hopes to do for others what Smith did for him.

“Looking to try to continue doing the same thing, being a positive role model,” he said. “And, most importantly, putting a productive product out on the field.”

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.