Washington State d-coordinator Alex Grinch talks 2016: Speed, kneecaps … and offense

SPOKANE -- You’re a fast one, Mr. Grinch. And you promise to get faster. Alex Grinch, Washington State’s second-year defensive coordinator, told the group assembled Monday at the Spokane Cougar Club luncheon there was one area of frustration he felt with the 2015 Cougar D: a comparative lack of team speed. This season is shaping up differently, Grinch said.

The 2015 Cougar D wasn’t slow-footed per se, Grinch said -- just not fast enough to play at the level the coach wanted. Grinch and the Cougar coaching staff addressed that need in part with the new recruiting class.

Fans, he said, will see the difference on the field when WSU opens the 2016 season Saturday against Eastern Washington in Martin Stadium (Pac-12 Network, 5 p.m.)

“I think the difference you’re going to see from 2015 is that we have more team speed,” Grinch said, saying the Cougar defense is a little ahead of where it was a year ago at this time. “We still need to see more competition across the board – the No. 2’s need to push the No. 1’s harder. We’re working on that and it’s getting better.

“The 2015 team put some things on film that 2016 hasn’t done yet. Time will tell.”

Grinch pointed to true freshman strong safety Jalen Thompson, who graduated high school in December and arrived on campus early to take part in spring drills and has earned the starting spot at strong safety. His speed makes him a difference-maker.

That difference was apparent in practice video Grinch brought from the Cougars’ days in Lewiston to start fall camp.

“We tell our players this: ‘Every play is your play to make,’” Grinch explained. “The other thing we preach are takeaways. Takeaways equal victory, so at the end of every play you’re going to see our guys ripping at the ball. Every time we get the ball on the ground, every time we get a takeaway, you’re going to see our guys put their fist in the air.”

Grinch talked at length about the approach he takes to tackling, both as a coaching philosophy and as a reaction to the NCAA rules regarding targeting.

“We talk a lot about tackling through the kneecap,” Grinch said. “Now, I know that sounds kind of bad, but that doesn’t mean we’re trying to take out guys' knees. I just mean that we want kids to use a lower aiming point to go in and make the tackle.”

Asked specifically about targeting, Grinch explained the importance of keeping that aiming point low.

“Where you get into trouble with targeting is when you aim high,” he said. “There doesn’t even have to be helmet-to-helmet contact for them to call you for targeting. If you launch yourself at the guy’s head, they’re going to call you for it.”

And, he pointed out, the penalty for targeting is stiff.

“There are no shades of targeting,” he said. “If you get flagged for targeting in the first half of a game, you’re out for the rest of that game. If you get flagged in the second half, you’re out for the rest of that game plus the first half of your next game. It’s stiff.”

The Cougars use a special device for tackling drills to help teach players to aim low going in for the takedown.

“We have a thing that looks like a big, foam donut,” he said. “It’s like trying to tackle a tire and take it to the ground.”

Grinch brought a package of video of the Cougar offense as well, but told the gathering that he had no real desire to look at it.

“The thing is, every time you see the offense make a big play we want it to be because they made a good play and not that someone somewhere made a mistake,” he said. “If you see the defense make a big play, it’s because they made the play the way it’s supposed to be made. That’s how you get better.”

Grinch highlighted several throws by second-year freshman quarterback Tyler Hilinski who made claim to the backup quarterback spot back in the spring and solidified his hold on the No. 2 job in fall camp.

“Tyler knows this offense,” Grinch said. “He has a good arm and he has the ability to throw guys open. And he’s been a pain in my butt now for X number of weeks.”

Grinch also highlighted a catch true freshman receiver Isaiah Johnson made on a throw by Hilinski along the sideline. Johnson, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound target, went high in the air to make the tough catch in traffic.

“That is a difficult play to defend against, especially against a guy who is big and strong the way Isaiah is,” Grinch said.

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