Alex Grinch is 'proud' of progress so far, but  'Oklahoma says it's not ... good enough'

The Sooners' defensive coordinator is eager get to get his third spring practice (second, really) underway on March 22
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Oklahoma announced Friday that spring practice will start on March 22.

That can’t get here soon enough for defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.

Grinch spoke with Sooner Sports TV’s Chris Plank this week and expressed how eager he was to get Year 3 started — especially since half of Year 2 was wiped out by the pandemic.

“We have a product that we’re proud of,” Grinch said. “It’s also a product that in the exact same breath we say it’s not what we want it to be yet. And so we’ve tried as much as anything to establish a standard within our room as coaches.

Alex Grinch

Alex Grinch

“There’s a benchmark that we’ve reached up to this point, and we have to make the decision as coaches to say whether or not that’s good enough. The University of Oklahoma says it’s not. We’re at an elite place, and that’s OK.”

OU’s defense showed massive improvements in Year 1 under Grinch, then took that to another level in Year 2.

The Sooners jumped from 114th nationally in total defense in 2018 to 38th in Grinch’s first year to 29th last year. In scoring defense, OU rocketed from 101st in ’18 to 64th in ’19 to 29th in ’20.

“Top-30 defense. We’re very, very proud of that,” Grinch said. “It took a lot of hard work on a lot of peoples’ part to get to that point. You talk about top 10 against the run. So many stats. The takeaways kind of exploded as the season went on. But, there’s also that point: ‘OK, now what?’ ”

Now what is what the most ambitious in Sooner Nation are saying should be a run at a national championship. Is that realistic? Maybe.

It will be more realistic if Grinch’s defense shows the kind of continued upward trajectory that it did in his first two seasons.

And that begins in earnest on March 22. Grinch said he can tell already that the foundation of playing great defense — communication — is already down. It’s now second nature for himself, his staff, and his players. There’s no more learning curve there.

“The game has a tendency to slow down,” Grinch said. “You hear people say that, but it’s true in so many ways. You’re not thinking about what communication needs to be made between each and every down. That becomes a little bit of something that’s been rehearsed so many times.”

Grinch said players not wondering what to do on a specific call — or wondering what the offense will do against their specific alignment — makes everything easier. He said now players can focus more than ever on just making a play. That manifested last year as the takeaways went from two in the first three games to 17 over the last eight games. Confidence took over.

“And I don’t think that’s now all of a sudden happening as they go into Year 3,” Grinch said, “but it’s a benefit of Year 3. And they need to reap that benefit. They do as individuals, and we need to do a good job as coaches to allow them to do those things.

“The term ‘practice’ is to normalize. We’re normalizing communication. We’re normalizing what offenses do and reactions to formations, reactions to plays. And now with that in your back pocket, when you play so many games or have so many games under your belt, once again, all those game reps are now a feather in your cap … that you can draw from.”

Spring practice, Grinch said, is the time when OU coaches lay that foundation. This time of year is all about teaching, so when the fall comes around, players can focus on doing. Having only one spring practice last year slowed the entire team’s natural progression. They made the most of all the virtual work and Zoom calls, but there’s only so much that can be done remotely.

This spring, Grinch can’t wait to get hands on again.

“You’re spending less time talking about alignments, for instance,” he said. “This time of year, we spend a lot of time on scheme. We spend a lot of time watching what we call cutups from the previous year, watching individual calls versus individual sets and plays and making sure, from a coaching standpoint, that we’re putting our guys in position to be successful.

“Everybody’s different,” Grinch said, “but what we believe in is the things we practice in the spring are the things we’re gonna execute in the fall over the course of a 12-, 13-, 14-game season. And so this is the pressure time for us as coaches, in a lot of ways, from a scheme standpoint. Because we’re not tackling anybody. We’re not making plays on footballs. We’re not sacking quarterbacks. So this is the time where we really want to load the scheme in. The nice thing is that so much of it’s already preloaded in terms of understanding. We speak the same language. Adjustments are just that: adjustments. It’s not necessarily a new install.

“But it’s also an opportunity to say, ‘OK, what we did last year, let’s not take the approach and say OK let’s just run it back and all is well.’ It’s, ‘How can we enhance?’ That’s this time of year. And as you get into spring football, now all of a sudden the effort level cranks up — in terms of what we coach. Obviously, that’s being done in the weight room; don’t get me wrong. We never get too far from that. But for coaches, specifically, this is classroom time for us.”