PULLMAN, Wash. -- Any list of the top young defensive coordinators in college football would be incomplete without Alex Grinch’s name somewhere near the top.
Yes, we’re talking about the second-year defensive coordinator at Washington State, the same guy who was 34 when Mike Leach hired him and the same guy who had no previous defensive coordinator experience when he got the job.
And, yes, despite the stigma that has been attached to the Air Raid offense and Leach’s program at Washington State, the Cougars are playing defense -- and playing it with the same voracity and attacking mindset as Leach’s offense. It’s the reason that Leach, the ultimate night owl, called Grinch late one night nearly three years ago after Grinch had already gone to bed and offered the sleepy safeties coach at Missouri the job.
“The thing about Alex was that he had a plan,” Leach said. “But what I liked most about him is that his philosophy was literally the defensive version of what ours is on offense. He’s got a game plan, a package, and you adjust your package around the problems that the other team presents and you don’t vary from it.”
It’s no secret that Grinch wasn’t Leach’s first choice, but has proven to be the right choice. Leach went after several other established defensive coordinators first. And after more than a month of looking, he kept coming back to Grinch, who had just finished his third season on Missouri's staff. Grinch’s only tie to Leach was then-Washington State receivers coach David Yost, who had been on the staff at Missouri with Grinch as the Tigers’ quarterbacks coach.
Leach wasn’t the only one rolling the dice, either. So did Grinch, who came to Washington State with just a one-year contract.
“I wasn’t on anybody’s list. A lot of people didn’t want the job, quite honestly,” Grinch said. “There just hasn’t been a lot of good defenses attached to the Air Raid for a number of reasons. Now, the flip side is you don’t have to shut people out, so there are two sides to that. That’s the thing with Coach Leach. He’s won games going back to his years at Texas Tech. He didn’t just put up numbers. That was enticing, along with the autonomy he gives you to do what you want to do.
“It’s your defense, and you can set it up, plan meetings and structure your staff any way you want.”
The vastly improved defensive numbers since Grinch’s arrival speak for themselves, which probably goes a long way in explaining Washington State’s 12-2 record over its past 14 Pac-12 games. Nobody else in the conference has won more games during that span.
During the 2014 season, the year before Grinch came aboard, the Cougars were ranked 114th nationally among FBS teams in points allowed (38.6 points per game), 97th in yards allowed (442.3 yards per game) and 124th in turnovers forced (eight in 12 games). They improved in all three areas in Grinch’s first season and have been even better this season. They’re 43rd in points allowed (24.7 points per game), 37th in yards allowed (373.3 yards per game) and 17th in turnovers forced (19).
As much as anything, Grinch has created an identity on defense. The Cougars have always had one offensively under Leach, but the defense was just sort of along for the ride, the forgotten side of the ball.
“One of the first things we talked about was, ‘Who are we? Who do we want to be?’” recalled Grinch, who brought a philosophy to the Palouse that helped steer Missouri to back-to-back SEC championship game appearances.
It’s a philosophy that begins and ends with taking the ball away from the opposition.
“Takeaways equal victories,” said Grinch, whose uncle is former Missouri coach Gary Pinkel. “It’s the only reason we’re out there, to get the ball back for the offense. A lot of people don’t think like that. They look it at more that you’re trying to limit yards. But you’re there on defense for one reason, to get the ball back. If you’re playing defense in basketball, no one is confused as to why you’re playing defense. It’s to get the basketball. It’s the same thing in football.
“We’re trying to brainwash our guys into believing that, so every single practice we’re stripping at it, grabbing at it and trying to knock it loose.”
That ball-hawking approach is also the reason why the first full scrimmage with Grinch as Washington State’s defensive coordinator turned into a free-for-all producing several fights.
“Offensive guys were looking at our guys like they were nuts because they were always stripping the football, but now they understand that’s just how we practice,” said Grinch, who emphasized how fortunate he was as a first-time coordinator to inherit assistants the caliber of Joe Salave'a and Ken Wilson. Grinch hired Roy Manning as outside linebackers coach.
Leach loved every minute of the defense biting back.
“He’s a passionate guy who doesn’t point fingers, and that’s the way our defense is playing,” Leach said.
Wanting to drive his point home, Grinch conducted a study based on the 2014 season, and every Power 5 team that forced at least 24 turnovers averaged nine wins. Sure enough, the Cougars forced exactly 24 last season and won nine games. They have 19 in nine games this season and have a chance Saturday against Cal to open the season 7-0 in the Pac-12 for the first time in school history.
Stopping the run has been a priority under Grinch, and the Cougars have improved steadily in that category. He hasn’t been afraid to commit extra defenders to help stop the run, which has left them vulnerable on the back end at times. And while they’ve given up more explosive plays than he would prefer, he points out that when you’re playing defense in Leach’s wide-open offensive system, “One doesn’t beat you.”
There’s also one other requirement if you’re going to play for Grinch. You'd better be able to run. The Cougars’ starting rush end, freshman Derek Moore, weighs 223 pounds. Their most disruptive inside guy up front, sophomore Hercules Mata’afa, weighs 250. Grinch also moved his most dynamic playmaker on defense, senior safety Shalom Luani, to nickel to get even more speed on the field.
To combat their lack of size, the Cougars will move or stunt on just about every play. Grinch is willing to compromise on size, but never on speed.
“We talk about being a downhill football team, and that’s the way we’re going to play,” Grinch said. “We’ve got a lot of guys running toward the line of scrimmage. It’s why we’ve got to be willing to take the quarterback in high school who can’t play quarterback at this level. But he can run, and we can teach him to play safety. It’s why they call us 'coach.'
“You’re looking for the kids with size and speed potential. But if you can’t run, you can’t play in our system. There’s not one kid who doesn’t play for us because he’s too small. The ones who don’t play are the ones who can’t run.”
Well, the Cougars are making what they hope will be a historic run to their first Pac-12 championship in more than a decade, and Grinch’s defense just might be the ingredient that turns a good season into a memorable season.