‘The message is being delivered.’ Alex Grinch knows USC’s defense must improve

USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, left, and defensive passing game coordinator Donte Williams instruct player.
USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, holding football, and defensive passing game coordinator Donte Williams instruct players during a workout at Dedeaux Field on the USC campus on Friday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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Every offseason presumably features some self-discovery for major college football coaches. Every second of game film from the previous season is dissected, every mistake second-guessed.

It’s been a standard part of the process for Alex Grinch during his two-plus decades in the business. But after his USC defense’s especially dismal finish last fall — and questions looming about his future as defensive coordinator — Grinch’s usual offseason deep dive went deeper than ever.

“We went back and watched practice,” Grinch said.

Anything to help a defense that unraveled down the stretch last season, allowing nearly 2,000 yards and 165 points during the final four weeks. Anything to find answers to the most glaring question facing the Trojans as they officially opened a new season of practice Friday.


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In sifting through hours of midweek film, Grinch believes he unearthed at least one consistent problem that he could trace back to the way his players closed Tuesday and Wednesday practices.

“We really struggled in the fourth quarter last year,” Grinch said.

Those finishing touches — or lack thereof — start with practice, he says. And Grinch has committed the fourth-quarter stats to memory to hammer home his point.

“Ten points on average in the fourth quarter, 120 yards per game in the fourth quarter,” he continued. “Again, it doesn’t matter if you end up on the winning side of it, but eventually it does. Three football games we lost, we all lost in the fourth quarter. Seventeen points per game in the fourth quarter our final three ballgames. Seventeen points per game. That’s a statement. Fourteen points per game on the road in the fourth quarter. It’s very hard to be statistically very good, and it’s hard to win football games, and somehow we did. That’s something that, believe me, the message is being delivered.”

USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch works with players during a team practice session Friday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Whether that message has stuck, won’t be known for a while. What can be said confidently about USC’s defense is that the unit looks different ahead of Grinch’s second season.

The defensive line is bigger, with beefy transfers like Bear Alexander (Georgia), Kyon Barrs (Arizona) and Anthony Lucas (Texas A&M) adding nearly 900 pounds to USC’s front. The linebacker room is stronger with the likes of Mason Cobb, an All-Big 12 inside linebacker last year, and Jamil Muhammad, an unheralded standout from Georgia State. The secondary is deeper, with at least a dozen players in play for five starting spots.


“It makes a big difference,” linebacker Eric Gentry said of the added depth and size. “The guys last year did a good job, but this year I’m really expecting even more.”

There are certainly reasons to believe USC’s defense — if only by default — will be better next season. It’s hard to be worse than where the Trojans finished — 106th in total defense, lower than any defense during the Clay Helton era.

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Its deficiencies on that end were laid bare at the Cotton Bowl last season, as USC bottomed out in embarrassing fashion, allowing more than 10 yards per play to Tulane. The chorus of frustrated fans calling for Grinch’s firing has carried on since, even as coach Lincoln Riley has expressed the utmost confidence in his defensive coordinator on multiple occasions.

He reiterated that confidence on Friday.

“He’s a really good coach, so he’s going to make adjustments,” Riley said. “All he cares about is winning and our defense playing to the level that we expect here which is a high, high-level defense, one of the best defenses in the country. That’s absolutely the expectation, and I think each year as a coach what you have to do and what the team and players need you to do to get to that point, it’s not always the same.”

That doesn’t mean Grinch plans to implement a different philosophy this fall. He wouldn’t rule out any possible changes to USC’s defense, but characterized his big-picture approach as “probably more the same than different” this season.

“If it’s just change in the name of changing something, throwing something against the wall to see if it’s gonna work, then we’re probably not prepared to be in this position to build a program at USC,” Grinch said.

USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch arrives at Dedeaux Field on the USC campus.
USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch arrives at Dedeaux Field on the USC campus for football practice Friday morning.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Plenty still wonder if Grinch is the right person for that job. The widely held belief is that he’ll be coaching for his job this season.

The pressure doesn’t seem to bother Grinch.

“I think 21 years in the business, I think you’re coaching for your job all the time,” he said. “I think pressure comes with it. I think about whether it’s at Missouri or Washington State or Ohio State or Oklahoma, I don’t feel any different than I have in any of those other years.”

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