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How Alex Grinch’s previous defenses made ‘steady improvement’

The culture on Oklahoma’s defense is about to change. Not only in tone and temperament but in coaching personnel.

With Oklahoma hiring defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, the defense figures to move quickly, be energetic and pursue with purpose.

“The scheme is designed to let players play fast,” Grinch said. “It’s a downhill approach. We work into gaps in our front and speed is our calling card. Today’s offenses are built on space and speed. You have to combat that with speed of your own. With speed on defense, it affords you the opportunity to run a multiplicity of coverages and fronts.”

This sounds a lot like the kind of defense he ran at Washington State, which seemingly became a top 30 defense overnight. Cougars coach Mike Leach said that’s just not true.

“It was more of a steady improvement—small steps, steady improvement,” he said. “He got them playing harder and harder, and we had a bunch of young guys who kind of needed to be lassoed in and taught to play hard and taught to be precise in what they did. It wasn’t like something big and dramatic overnight. We just improved steadily and incrementally.”

Whether it was gradual change or every defensive player being bitten by a radioactive spider, the results from Grinch’s time at Washington State speak for themselves. In three seasons at Pullman, Washington, his defense forced 75 turnovers or 25 a season. Last season Oklahoma forced just 11.

Grinch’s base defense is called a 3-4, and it’s not totally dissimilar to the defense OU tried to run late in the 2018. But one-gap scheme on the defensive front and decision to be physical in the secondary are hallmarks of Grinch’s defense with an overwhelming emphasis on 11 men pursuing the play.

And that commitment to speed being the currency of his defense means the Sooners will have to change the way they think about pursuit angles, reacting to what they see, get back to fundamentals and be detail-oriented. As a recruiter, expect Grinch to be sound in identifying players who fit his scheme rather than high-profile prospects for the sake of recruiting rankings.

Leach, who runs an air raid offensive scheme, believes that his offense works because he tries to keep it as simple as possible. He wanted the same trait in his defensive coordinator because he believes the overall goal for a coach is to make the game elementary for players so that they can let their talents do the work.

“I think everything in football should be simple,” Leach told OUInsider. “And I’ve viewed it as a constant battle to keep things simple because you want people to be able to pull the trigger. Anything that you put in or teach or coach or do that slows people down? You haven’t helped yourself. You’ve hurt yourself.

I think most offenses are overcomplicated, and I think most defenses and special teams are overcomplicated. I think anything you can do to simplify it is extremely positive.”

With the retirement of OU linebacker coach Tim Kish, indications are Grinch will try to bring in at least one coach who has worked with him and understands the kind of scheme he wants to run, implement and teach to an OU defense that is eager to earn back the reputation the program once had as one of the best defensive teams in the country.

UCLA coach Roy Manning is one candidate to watch be the outside linebackers coach. He worked with Grinch at Washington State in the same capacity.

When Manning ran the Cougar outside linebackers in 2015, his position group accounted for 26.5 tackles-for-loss with 12 sacks. He has experience spanning to Michigan and Cincinnati where he’s coached linebackers, corner backs and running backs.

He could also add an NFL pedigree to OU’s defensive staff having played in the league for five teams where he played special teams after completing his career at Michigan where played linebacker.

If Grinch decided to coach safeties in addition to his coordinator responsibilities and hire a coach he’s worked with like Manning, the Sooners will be good shape to remake the culture and personality of a defense that gave up more than 700 yards to West Virginia and gave up at least 40 points in six games last season.

Grinch knows the battle he’s in for in a league where the scoreboard frequently resembles that of a high school boy basketball game more often than a college football game.

“I have great respect for the Big 12,” Grinch said. “The offenses are explosive. To a degree, that same approach has become America’s offense. Offenses now feature run-pass options combined with tempo. That’s the challenge we face and we look forward to meeting it.”

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