Alex Grinch isn’t the kind to sugarcoat. It’s part of the reason, players say, that the USC defensive coordinator commands respect. He shoots it straight. Even if it means putting himself in the crosshairs.
So when he was asked Thursday to take stock of what he accomplished with USC’s defense in his first season as coordinator, Grinch stepped into the line of fire once again.
“The answer is, ‘Not enough,’” he said. “You’re charged with having a championship-level defense at USC. You signed up for that. We played good enough defense 11 times. We didn’t play good enough defense two times, but I don’t take a lot of solace in that. We were expected to have a championship-level defense, and we weren’t able to do that in the ‘22 season.”
Those shortcomings were laid bare in its Pac-12 title defeat as USC gave up 533 yards and a season-high 47 points to Utah in what was easily its worst tackling performance of the season. Ever since, any finger-pointing from outside the program has trained on USC’s coordinator and the direction he’s taken the Trojans defense.
Grinch might agree with many of those critiques. Some, in fact, he’s probably made himself.
But by this week, as USC prepared to travel to the Cotton Bowl in search of its 12th win and Mekhi Blackmon saw fans calling for his coach’s job while scrolling through social media, the senior cornerback couldn’t tolerate any more criticism.
“I Speak For A Lot Of People When I Say Grinch A Great MF Coach,” Blackmon tweeted on Monday.
It was Grinch’s coaching, after all, that convinced the cornerback to transfer from Colorado to USC a year ago. Blackmon proceeded to have the best season of his college career, emerging as a first-team All-Pac-12 cornerback and soon-to-be NFL draft pick. He says Grinch played a major role in that process.
“Coming here changed my whole game,” Blackmon said.
Max Williams says he has witnessed plenty of change within USC’s defense over the last year. The junior USC defensive back remembers where the group stood last December while he watched from the sidelines recovering from an ACL tear. The defense had come apart at the seams, losing its way over the final weeks of last season.
He wonders if that depressing nadir has been lost amid the criticism over this season’s unit.
“Some people fail to realize, like, where this defense was at last year and where this team was at last year because of the success we have this year,” Williams said. “It blinds the fact of what happened last year. We know we took a big jump.”
Those steps aren’t always so easy to quantify when it comes to defense. Though, this season has made for some noteworthy markers.
USC forced eight more turnovers in 2022 on its way to leading the nation in turnover margin. Its defense gave up four fewer points per game and tallied as many sacks this season (36) as it had in the previous two combined.
But tackling was still subpar. USC was still rolled over in the run game, and its secondary seemed to take a step back during the homestretch of the season. With the exception of its win over 1-11 Colorado, USC’s pass defense allowed 300-plus yards and three-plus touchdowns in six of its last seven games.
“It’s not always linear,” senior linebacker Shane Lee said. “[Progress] doesn’t always look the way you want it to look.”
It certainly didn’t this season at USC, where the Trojans defense seemed to take one step forward one week only to take two steps back the next.
“If you’re not careful, you default to just being OK,” Grinch said. “It pains me to say that that’s where we’ve been the bulk of the year. We’re still learning. You try to bend reality to the situation you’re in. We had an opportunity to play for a championship, and we couldn’t bend reality far enough to get that thing done.”
But just because USC fell short of a championship doesn’t mean Grinch plans on doing any bending with his defensive philosophy.
“In terms of how we practice, what we preach, what we do, we won’t change a lick,” Grinch said. “If you call yourself a good coach, you have to believe in the things you’re coaching.”
That belief paid off at his last stop, where Oklahoma’s defense improved significantly from his first to his second season, allowing six fewer points per game. The difference, Grinch said, was the adversity the Sooners had experienced the season before.
“You want to skip steps,” Grinch said, “and I know coaches like to talk like this and believe me, I’m not trying to spin a tale here, but that’s fact. You look at these programs and how they get to where they got to — well, they went through some things. They played in the game and found that it takes a little bit more from a preparation standpoint. It’s fighting through some stuff.
“It’s getting knocked down and getting back up.”
As Grinch sees it, USC is well on its way to the second step.
“That’s what this past month has been about,” he said. “We’ve flat gotten after it.”