NORMAN — Under warm spring skies, Alex Grinch watched the Oklahoma defense assemble for its first formal practice of 2020.
Grinch, hired as OU’s defensive coordinator last offseason, admitted that this starting point was more pleasant with a group he’s now overseen for one year.
Tre Norwood, an injured defensive back last preseason, has returned in limited fashion. Four other defenders who dealt with ACL tears are either back or working toward good health.
There are more positives than negatives.
But Grinch hasn’t forgotten the Peach Bowl. The coach who often reminded OU’s secondary it ranked 129th in the nation in pass defense the year before he arrived won’t let the Sooners forget about where they fell short last season either.
The Sooners lost to LSU 63-28 just a little more than two months ago.
“What we haven't done … We haven't patted ourselves on the back a whole lot in the last couple months talking about how great we did,” he said.
Grinch remains blunt as ever, but with context.
He pulled no punches on his first day meeting reporters as spring practice got underway, giving credit it where it’s due since OU’s defense improved itself from the low ranks it dwelled in during the 2018 season, but offering scathing reviews when necessary.
Here’s Grinch on how close someone like defensive tackle Jordan Kelley is to contributing: “Well, not close enough. That’s just the reality of it. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the ability to do it or he’s not going to have the opportunity but I’ll say this: the guys that contributed last year were the guys we felt could contribute last year. And believe me we wanted more guys to contribute. If you didn’t see their name in the stat book or you didn’t see them go in the game there’s a reason that they didn’t. Not all cases were health related.”
On veteran linebacker Caleb Kelly’s leadership: “I think that leadership's important,” Grinch said, “but what he needs to focus on is being a great football player. He's got to worry about him in more ways than one.”
On the lack of takeaways OU produced last season, ranking 121st nationally: “Well, to say we didn’t meet the goal — that’s a nice way to say it and I appreciate that,” Grinch said. “But that’s an alarming stat and it’s on me. You lose a lot of credibility as a coach if you stand in front of you guys and stand in front of the team and stand in front of the unit and say we’re going to get takeaways and make a major emphasis of it and then you don’t get them … It’s got to be a want to. And one of the things we’re talking to the guys about is that takeaways aren’t a bonus. That’s not extra credit. I still think we feel that way.”
The low number of defensive takeaways — alarming to Grinch as much as anyone, since his philosophy is built so firmly on them — and other figures he was disappointed in made for a restless offseason, even though most of OU’s defensive statistics have changed for the better.
There wasn’t much time to ponder that, or the various head coaching jobs he was reportedly a candidate for — namely Washington State and Colorado — the past few months.
“I've been pretty good at 'head down, coach football. Head down, coach football,’” he said.
OU’s main defensive issues now revolve around cornerback depth and developing defensive linemen to replace four players who took up a majority of the playing time last season.
OU head coach Lincoln Riley was asked about secondary depth on Monday, responding: “I think depth, we're definitely gonna be in a good place. There were times last spring where especially at corner, there were some days when it was tough to even get near the amount of snaps that we wanted to get so we're gonna be a deeper, more experienced group for sure.”
Grinch’s response to a question about cornerback depth a day later: “We're thin,” though he added that a few newcomers in the fall will help.
On OU ranking 17th nationally in tackles for loss: “We should have had more,” Grinch said.
However dry or unimpressed OU’s defensive coordinator might seem, he wants an elite defense and envisions one in Norman. One recruiting cycle isn’t enough to full stock Grinch’s system.
He still thinks the world of his situation.
“I think there's so much positive going on here,” Grinch said. “[I] like to think we've contributed to it as a defensive staff. Certainly to a point, we're pleased with the progress we've made, we're awfully frustrated, or pissed off at some of the results that we got last year. But that doesn't dismiss the progress that we made.
“I also think we're just getting started, I really do. I use the term, 'We're not even good yet.’ Just wait until we get good.”