A year ago, I remember feeling equal parts excited and nervous about what new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch would be bringing to the table for Washington State.
Today -- following a season in which the Grinch-led defense improved enough to be a major factor in the Cougs reaching nine wins for the first time in more than a decade -- whatever trepidation there was has been completely replaced by excitement at the prospect of a second-year with Grinch at the helm.
And with a year in the system under everyone's belts, the defense should be able to make bigger strides in spring practice than it did in 2015.
"I think you go back a year, you had almost a faith-based system on everybody's part," Grinch told Ian Furness and Jason Puckett on Sportsradio KJR in Seattle on Wednesday. "Us as coaches having faith in the guys, that although there's a lot of unknowns, that ultimately they were going to come around, and a lot of faith on their part to buy into what we were selling in a situation where it's a first-year defense and they're itching for change. So from that standpoint, you've got a year of experience between the two parties, between the coaches and the players, and the trust factor is there.
"Certainly, it allows you to be ahead of the game from the standpoint that a year ago you're still talking terminology. Now, there's at least some familiarity, certainly with the older guys, and even with some of the younger guys. It just gives you the chance to truly take advantage I think of the 15 practices, as opposed to maybe the first couple where guys were testing the waters. We'll hit the ground running (Thursday), and that's probably the biggest difference."
Last year, the unfamiliarity of a new system necessitated that the coaches keep things exceptionally simple. Will they now use this time to insert some more exotic packages?
"Part of the chore this offseason was to maybe resist the urge in a lot of ways to say we can check the box on X-number of things we do defensively now let's go add to it," Grinch said. "We're never afraid to coach, so if there's something we think can help us and improve us, we'll certainly implement those things, but what we don't want to do is all of a sudden the playbook gets that much bigger and we're not able to play as fast as we need to. That's the balance we've been working toward this offseason."
I imagine foremost in most people's minds is how Grinch envisions filling some of the vacancies left by departing seniors, particularly in the front seven. In that respect, Grinch did offer a little bit of insight.
Just like fans, Grinch is incredibly high on Hercules Mata'afa, whom he says needs to show that he can sustain his production as an every-down player.
"I think the sky's the limit (for him)," Grinch said. "The thing Hercules has is a tremendous motor ... and with his motor, he's able to, whether it's the quarterback or the running back, he's going to find a way to put himself at the point of attack regardless of where the ball is. His motor, his strength, and his size is pretty unique. He probably runs better than most people think ... all these guys, the message is don't just be a year older, you've got to be a year better, and he's obviously included in that."
He noted that Robert Barber and Daniel Ekuale played a lot in 2015, but "now they've gotta play more productive snaps -- they've gotta be the ones getting tackles for loss and affecting the quarterback in the pass game." He also specifically mentioned Logan Tago and Dylan Hanser as potential pass rushers who could step up, presumably at Rush linebacker.
As for who replaces Jeremiah Allison?
"A guy like Frankie Luvu ... with the flashes we saw at times over the course of the season and that he was able to display in that Sun Bowl vs. Miami, he's got to be that every single down if he's going to be a starting linebacker," Grinch said. "Isaac Dotson is another one that has the body type and the speed potential to be a real force on the second level of the defense, as well as a number of other guys and junior college guys we'll piece in as the come into the program this summer."
And as for the secondary, which returns a ton of talent? He's got one message.
"The one thing I will highlight is the need for more production," he said. "We need to get more hands on footballs when the ball is thrown. I think we were in situations where we need to win more battles with the ball in the air. If the standard is 'we weren't bad,' then that's a pretty low standard. We need to improve that way. There are more plays for us to make on the back end."
If that can happen, more turnovers are bound to come the Cougs' way ... and that's exactly what Grinch wants.
"(Turnovers were) a huge emphasis, and it's a demand on our part. It's not just something we expect from our guys, in terms of fighting for the football on every single snap, we demand that they do it," he said. "It's what we practice, it's what we preach, and we'll never get away from it as long as this coaching staff is intact. It wins football games -- I'll keep the stats to myself* -- but it's glaring in terms of the impact of what takeaways from a defensive standpoint can do in terms of the impact on a football game.
"We literally have one purpose when we're on that field, and that's to get the ball back to our offense. It's not magic, it's not unique to Washington State, and if it continues, we'll have a chance to be successful. And if it doesn't, we won't. It's bottom-line stuff. You gotta find a way to get the ball."
WSU's spring practices began today at 3:30 p.m. You can read our primer here.
Interested in the (almost) full transcript? Read it here. Just excuse the minor typos.