Which is more important: slowing down an opponent’s passing game to a crawl or taking the ball away from them?
While ultimately it comes down to the system, USC’s new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch wants turnovers.
“On offense, we don’t consider touchdowns extra credit,” Grinch said during USC Football media day Thursday. “We don’t view takeout defensively as the extra. We see this as the only purpose for which we take the field.
He said Thursday that his two defensive priorities were to stop the run and get the ball out. Grinch said he doesn’t see turnovers as a “risk-reward way,” but as a way to play proper defense.
In the passing game, it means having depth in coverage because “depth equals confidence” to attack the ball. Grinch also stressed the importance of group tackling whenever possible, letting the first defender wrap the ball carrier and the others go for the ball. That focus worked for him last year, when his Oklahoma defense was in the top 10 in fumbles recovered.
Defensive line coach Shaun Nua said the focus on turnovers starts with his unit.
“We have to get into that backfield and get the quarterback to throw that pass or create some [tackles for loss] when they put the ball back,” Nua said Thursday. “We must be violent.”
“We’re not scoring touchdowns,” Grinch added. “Obviously we’d love it, but included in that – if we score a touchdown, that includes the takeaway at some point in this game. That’s the main metric we’re looking 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 against and 37th in turnovers.
Many of USC’s revenue 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 up 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 off may be necessary, as newer USC players lack it. Senior linebacker Shane Lee forced three turnovers in 2019, but his playing time was 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 had as many turnovers in their past, but in a system that favors getting off the ball more, that could soon change.
There’s a lot of room for improvement over last year’s defense. Oklahoma was never in the defensive elite under Grinch, but it was never worse than average. The Sooners’ pass defense was suspect at times, but their run defense was always good.
The USC defense ranked second to last in the Pac-12 last season with 31.8 points allowed per game. Between a change of scheme, established talents, and a long list of talented transfers, the Trojans have the opportunity to significantly improve those ratings.