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Progress for Washington State defense under Alex Grinch, but work remains

Alex Grinch is tasked with reforming a pass defense that allowed 296.6 yards per game in 2014. WSU Athletic Communications

This much is simple enough: Washington State was not good defensively last season -- particularly against the pass.

The Cougars allowed 38.6 points per game. California was the only team in the nation that surrendered more total passing yards, yet Washington State still bled more per attempt -- 8.3 yards -- than the Bears, putting the Cougars in the Pac-12 cellar when it came to that telling statistic.

Mike Leach's Air Raid was desperate for room to breathe. The defense needed to be rebuilt, so the coach hired a new coordinator on that side of the ball -- one who happened to specialize in teaching the secondary.

Enter Alex Grinch, the assistant formerly in charge of Missouri's safeties who's now gunning to revitalize the entire Washington State defense. The numbers indicate it's a daunting task, but it's certainly a necessary one if the Cougars are to finally turn the corner following a disappointing 3-9 campaign.

Early returns indicate that Grinch is making gradual headway in the Palouse. He's made a significant tweak designed to better equip Washington State's 3-4 scheme against the pass, replacing one of the linebackers with a nickelback in some base formations. He's positioned the defense to maintain its effectiveness against the run while creating pass pressure with aggressive blitzes, and results of that undertaking showed in the spring game when the Cougars combined to record nine sacks and 15 tackles for loss.

"I think we've gotten better all the way around," Leach said. "I think we've run to the ball really good."

Darius Lemora has stood out in the new nickelback role, while defensive lineman Destiny Vaeao, linebacker Jeremiah Allison, and cornerback Charleston White all fortified their position groups with strong play during spring practice.

Grinch maintains that this early improvement is more firmly rooted in an emphasis on fundamentals than it is in his tweaks to the scheme. He spent his first 15 practices on the new job hammering home basic concepts -- "you almost try to brainwash the guys to understand what good defensive football is," he said -- in an attempt to derail the locomotive of Washington State's 2014 mistake train. The Cougars are coming off a season in which they allowed 58 pass plays of 20 yards or more, the third most in the nation.

"I take a pitcher's approach to defensive football," Grinch said. "No matter what pitches you throw, if you hit your spots, you have a chance to be successful. As long as you're playing with the right fundamentals -- gap integrity, leveraging the football on the perimeter, making sure 5-yard gains don't turn into 50-yard gains, pressuring the quarterback, making him throw underneath -- if you're doing those things, you have a chance to be successful."

Execution of those pillars, Grinch said, puts a defense in attack position -- the mode from which it can focus on taking the ball away from an offense. That's a facet of Washington State's game that badly needed improvement: The Cougars intercepted only three passes throughout all of 2015, and only one of those picks came courtesy of the secondary. The latter was the worst figure in the nation.

"Every single down of football allows you an opportunity to get the ball," Grinch said. "That's got to be our mind-set. When you have a group of guys thinking that way, that starts the process of getting an opportunity to get the ball."

Washington State intercepted three passes in the spring game, leading former Cougar safety Paul Sorensen to agree with Grinch and simultaneously praise his early effect on the program. Sorensen wrote that improved technique from the defensive backs allowed them to make more effective plays on the ball.

Still, while the general consensus suggests that the Cougars have made tangible strides under Grinch, all progress must be evaluated in the appropriate context. Quarterback Luke Falk threw for 323 yards while receiver Dom Williams caught eight passes for 164 yards against Washington State's defense in the spring game. There's no way to sugarcoat it: Those are gaudy numbers. And while statistical looks at April exhibitions aren't foolproof indicators by any stretch of the imagination, they certainly can serve as humbling reminders that plenty of work remains ahead.

"We have a long way to go," Grinch said. "Thankfully, we don't have to play a game today, and we're fortunate that practices in April don't count. Without question, we've made progress. But you don't want to confuse progress with being good enough."

The demand for improved defensive play is especially pronounced in Pullman, where that unit has paled in comparison to the dizzying numbers of Leach's offense over the past several years. But Grinch is confident he can help deliver a missing puzzle piece.

"What you have is a program that has proven it's going in the right direction, specifically on the offensive side of the ball," Grinch said. "Now we can make the defensive side of the ball have the success I expect and the Washington State fan base expects. ... This is an opportunity to make an impact. That's my plan: to come out here and be successful. Otherwise you don't take the job."