What’s more important: slowing an opponent’s passing game to a crawl or taking the ball away?
While ultimately, it depends on the system, new USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch wants turnovers.
“On offense, we don’t look at scoring touchdowns as being extra credit,” Grinch said at USC Football Media Day on Thursday. “We don’t look at takeaways defensively as being the extra. We look at that as the sole purpose why we take the field.”
He said Thursday that his two priorities defensively were stopping the run and taking the ball away. Grinch said he doesn’t view turnovers as a “means of risk-reward” but as a means of playing proper defense.
In the pass game, that means having depth in coverage because “depth equals confidence” to attack the ball. Grinch also emphasized the importance of group tackling whenever possible, letting the first defender wrap up the ball carrier and the rest go for the ball. That emphasis worked for him last year, when his Oklahoma defense was top 10 in fumbles recovered.
Defensive line coach Shaun Nua said the focus on turnovers starts with his unit.
“We’ve got to get in that backfield and cause the quarterback to throw that pass or create some [tackles for loss] when they’re handing the ball off,” Nua said Thursday. “We’ve got to be violent.”
“We don’t score touchdowns,” Grinch added. “Obviously we’d love to, but included in that — if we score a touchdown, that includes the takeaway at some point within that play. That’s the chief metric that we look at.”
Under Grinch last year, Oklahoma was 76th in yards allowed per game and 58th in points allowed per game but 19th in turnovers. USC was 90th in yards allowed per game, 104th in points allowed and 37th in turnovers.
Many of USC’s turnover leaders from last year are still on the team. Redshirt sophomore safety Xavion Alford and sophomore safety Calen Bullock led the team in interceptions last year, and both are in line for starting roles this year. Junior Tuli Tuipulotu led the team in forced fumbles last year and is expected to anchor the 2022 defensive line.
Their experience taking the ball away may be needed, as it is lacking from USC’s new players. Senior linebacker Shane Lee forced three turnovers in 2019 but had his playing time cut due to injuries and other talent at Alabama. Sophomore defensive back Latrell McCutchin forced two fumbles in limited playing time last year. The rest of USC’s additions may not have as many turnovers in their past, but in a system that more heavily prioritizes taking the ball away, that may soon change.
There’s a lot of room for improvement upon last year’s defense. Oklahoma was never elite defensively under the Grinch, but it was never worse than average. The Sooners’ pass defense was, at times, suspect, but their run defense was consistently good.
USC’s defense ranked second-to-last in the Pac-12 last season with 31.8 points allowed per game. Between a change in scheme, some established talent and a long list of talented transfers, the Trojans have the opportunity to improve significantly upon those marks.