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Horning: Grinch offering Sooner defense a completely different path

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OU Football Practice

OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch looks on during practice, Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, at the Al Velie Rugby Complex. 

NORMAN — Everybody remembers Tom Cruise in “Risky Business.” Not everybody remembers his next movie, “All The Right Moves.”

I haven’t seen it maybe since it was new, which means I haven’t seen it in 36 years.

Still, taking a look at first-year Sooner defensive coordinator Alex Grinch takes me back to a couple scenes from that movie.

On a side note, I’m mad at myself for never asking Bob Stoops if he felt like Cruise was playing him. It took place in the Rust Belt, Cruise’s character was a defensive back. It fits.

Whatever.

Now, about those scenes.

The movie's most important scene arrives when Cruise sticks up for a teammate that Craig T. Nelson, playing the coach, accused of quitting on the team. That, of course, caused Nelson to tear into Cruise, who’d been flagged for pass interference during the big game.

“If you had done it the way I taught you …,” Nelson whaled at Cruise, referencing a previous scene in which he’d told Cruise, as they watched film, not to play the ball, but the man.

Play the man.

It’s a long way to get to Grinch, but now we're there.

The number of times Grinch wants his defenders to not play the ball may be zero.

Listening to him, at some level, feels like a study in the wrongness of old coaching bromides once accepted as fact.

Last week, Grinch was asked a simple but telling question. If he’s all about turnovers, how does he go about creating more interceptions?

Before we get to his answer, two things: one, it’s nice that he had one and two, he uses the phrase “top down” which would appear to mean not letting your opponent get on top of you, beyond you.

Here’s that answer.

“I think number one, we talk about eye control, making sure your eyes are where they belong,” he said. “In a zone concept defense, my eye is on the quarterback and I have got to make sure the flash of the opposing jersey doesn't dictate where I go … A man concept, that quarterback doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s about being where that receiver goes.

“I think number two is being a top-down mentality. If I'm in any type of trail position … it's a panic situation … And so number one is eye control, and number two [is] being top-down in everything that you do. You have a chance to then attack the football.”

So don’t get caught in a trailing, because more than anything, Grinch wants that football.

Badly.

At the least, he's bringing a new language, focus and unbridled enthusiasm to his mission. At the most, he’s turning maybe a century of defensive thinking on its head.

The thing offensive coaches finally figured out about this game called football is there’s too much real estate for 11 men to defend if 11 other men are making them defend all of it.

The realization of that truth has made many wonder if defense can ever recover in a world in which the field remains 100 yards long, 120 counting the end zones, and 53 1/3 yards wide.

Historically, offense has evolved and defense has, too, one gaining the upper hand until the pendulum swings back and the pattern repeats.

What Grinch may understand is that pattern's over in any traditional sense because there’s no defending every patch of grass if an offense is committed to threatening every patch.

However, what a defense can always do is target the football. It may require gambling, it may require doing two things at once, tackling and stripping the ball simultaneously.

It may compromise tackling a bit, yet the payoff of a single turnover could be worth 5 to 10 tackles. It could be worth 20.

It’s the new calculus and it takes a true believer to sell it.

Grinch is a true believer.

“We're [at] almost 400 strip attempts. Almost 400 strip attempts up to this point. Almost 40 strip attempts a day, and a true strip attempt is a willingness to get the ball out,” he said last Monday. “So, by the time we play game one, we should be right around 1,000 strip attempts on legit ballcarriers.”

Who talks like that?

Or, perhaps, who doesn’t?

Grinch does, and the guy who used to have his job didn’t.

Indeed, the guy who used to have his job appeared to fear the downside of such aggressiveness, which is not a good place to be.

Still, it has to work.

“The buy-in,” said Grinch, “I can’t describe to you.”

Seems like it might.

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