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Alex Grinch says USC can't rush defensive overhaul. 'You can't microwave it'

LA Times logo LA Times 3/23/2023 Ryan Kartje
USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch watches over during USC spring practice on Tuesday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times) © Provided by LA Times USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch watches over during USC spring practice on Tuesday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

When Alex Grinch sat down to process the disastrous end to his debut season as USC’s defensive coordinator, he started with the worst of the worst.

The explosive plays. The missed tackles. The mental breakdowns. Considering the nearly 2,000 combined yards his defense surrendered over its final four games, there was plenty to sift through in November and December alone.

“You rip the Band-Aid off real quick,” Grinch said Tuesday. “That’s the appropriate thing to do.”

In the wake of USC’s embarrassing bowl loss, frustrated fans pleaded for Lincoln Riley to cut Grinch loose. But the coach made clear in January, at the height of that frustration, that his confidence in the coordinator had never wavered. Grinch was back in the office the morning after the bowl defeat, trying to make sense of how and why USC’s defense had unraveled.

More than two months later, Grinch spoke with reporters for the first time about his unit’s frustrating finish. Asked about his process for fixing the defense, the oft-analytical Grinch spoke for three straight minutes in granular and sometimes meandering detail, explaining each of the individual lenses through which he evaluated USC’s defensive performance.

The process began, Grinch said, with first looking inward.

“It takes a lot of discipline, and it takes a lot of maturity as a coaching staff to go through it because you’re rehashing the most frustrating plays of the season and it’s fresh,” he said. “So you look at it through that lens, 'What can we do?' You have to have an honest evaluation.”

What revelations, if any, came from that self-assessment remain to be seen. But any reflection on the defense last season included some hard truths. USC finished 106th in the nation in total defense and 93rd in points allowed, and even those brutal figures don’t seem to capture where the unit stood by the fourth quarter of its bowl game, as it allowed Tulane to tally more than 10 yards per play.

Riley said Tuesday he was “very pleased with the progress defensively” this spring. But Grinch wasn’t running away from any of those hard truths.

“You can’t microwave it,” Grinch said of fixing USC’s defensive issues. “You gotta go through it. And we also have to make sure as you go through it that at USC, we’re not afraid of the struggle. We’re not afraid of the hard stuff.”

USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch watches over during USC spring practice on Tuesday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times) © (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times) USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch watches over during USC spring practice on Tuesday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

USC added six transfers on defense to speed up the process and most of them appear on their way to making a major impact.

Those additions have been most apparent along the defensive front, Riley says.

Former Arizona defensive tackle Kyon Barrs has looked like an immediate contributor on the interior, while Jamil Muhammad, who transferred from Georgia State, has made an impression with his explosiveness off the edge. Anthony Lucas, a former five-star defensive lineman, also has been “intriguing”, Riley said, given his athleticism and size.

“We brought in some good players up front. There’s no question about it,” Riley said. “And we’ve got a few more coming. There’s more competition. There’s less of a gap between what was good for us last year on the front and then kind of the gap between the next level was too big. The gap is much smaller. There’s a lot more competition, a lot more talent. I think this group has shown they have an opportunity to be more difficult for offenses to block than our group last year.”

It would be tempting to assume that a year of experience might make this offseason smoother for Grinch and his defense. But the embattled assistant warned explicitly against that sentiment.

“You can’t just simply say, ‘It’s Year 2, so all things are going to be better — just the natural progression, we’re older, we’re better,'” Grinch said. “So we describe it to the guys, it can’t be Year 1, 2.0. … Believe me, everyone loves Year 2 compared to Year 1. But that’s not the magic elixir, either.

“We have a responsibility to stack days and work harder. But there’s a bigger unit, there’s a stronger unit, and I think it’s a very confident unit.”


USC tight end Malcolm Epps entered the NCAA transfer portal Wednesday morning. He caught three touchdown passes during two seasons with the Trojans after transferring from Texas. ... USC announced the addition of former Southeastern Conference and NFL defensive backs coach Greg Brown to its staff as a defensive analyst.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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