On Sunday, USC coach Lincoln Riley made the move Trojans fans had been calling for all season, dismissing defensive coordinator Alex Grinch after falling 52-42 to Washington, the team’s third loss in the past four games. The Trojans defense has struggled mightily in Riley’s two seasons at USC, and the unit has been plagued by poor tackling and coverage busts. USC ranks No. 109 in yards per play allowed, No. 126 in red zone defense and No. 132 in plays of 20-plus yards allowed. It has allowed 42 points per game over its past six games.
Grinch had done very well in his prior stop in the Pac-12 as Mike Leach’s defensive coordinator at Washington State before being hired by Riley at Oklahoma to fix what had been an atrocious Sooners defense. Grinch got OU to make some strides, but it was far from an elite group. Being an Air Raid defensive coordinator brings some challenges, as we detailed this summer. Several old defensive coordinators who have worked in Air Raid programs say it’s not a coincidence that many of the top statistical defenses in the country happen to be at Big Ten programs with underwhelming offenses, most notably Iowa.
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Where will USC turn for its next defensive coordinator?
The biggest name USC could target is a coach who isn’t working as a defensive coordinator this year. Jim Leonhard’s next move will be fascinating. The former Wisconsin star did an amazing job running the defense at his alma mater, but after becoming the interim head coach last season, he ended up on Bret Bielema’s Illinois staff as a senior defensive analyst. The 41-year-old produced defenses that ranked among the nation’s top five in total defense and top 10 in scoring defense four times at Wisconsin. He also helped developed a ton of talent there. This would be a home-run hire based on his track record if Riley could get him to USC, although he’d be working opposite a dramatically different offensive system.
One option Riley will likely consider is across town at UCLA. D’Anton Lynn, the 33-year-old rookie defensive coordinator of the Bruins has taken a group that ranked No. 72 last year and turned it into a defense that ranks No. 9 in the nation. Thanks to a gifted defensive front, UCLA leads the Pac-12 in run defense and in sacks and is No. 6 in red zone touchdown defense. It’s also allowed the fewest plays of 20-plus yards (22) in the Pac-12 — 40 fewer than the Trojans. Would the Penn State grad make the move? It’s unknown, but the former NFL assistant’s stock has risen significantly since he came to Westwood.
Utah’s Morgan Scalley has consistently produced terrific defenses, but I don’t see him leaving the Utes at this point to come to USC. The 44-year-old Salt Lake City native and former Utes standout will likely be Utah’s next head coach whenever Kyle Whittingham decides he’s done coaching.
There’s another guy with UCLA roots who could be in play. Nebraska defensive coordinator Tony White is a former Bruins linebacker who learned under Rocky Long as a young coach. The 44-year-old has had a strong first season in Lincoln, turning what had been the Big Ten’s 13th-ranked run defense before he arrived into the No. 2 unit this season. The Huskers have gone from No. 10 in sacks to No. 2. They’ve also gone from No. 11 in red zone touchdown percentage defense to No. 4. At Syracuse, his defense ranked in the top 25 in 2021 and 2022 (and No. 2 and No. 4 in the ACC in those years) before he joined Matt Rhule at Nebraska. He spent two seasons coaching in the Pac-12 at Arizona State, where he improved the Sun Devils significantly in 2018 and 2019. This would seem like an option USC should be considering.
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NC State’s Tony Gibson knows all about life as an Air Raid defensive coordinator from his days working for current Houston coach Dana Holgorsen. The 51-year-old Gibson is really good and could be in line for a Group of Five head coaching job this winter. NC State is No. 9 in third-down defense, No. 5 in interceptions and No. 40 in the nation in yards per play allowed this season. NC State was No. 22 last year and No. 16 in 2021. Last year, the Wolfpack D ranked first in the ACC in scoring defense, third in total defense, third in rushing defense, first in defensive passing efficiency and first in interceptions. He’s paid very well at NC State, making $1.3 million a year, but he’s proven to be one of the best in the business.
Texas Tech’s Tim DeRuyter, a Southern California native, knows the Pac-12 well from his time at Oregon and Cal. His defense is No. 3 in the Big 12 in yards per play allowed and No. 44 in the country. In 2022, the Red Raiders allowed only 29.2 points per game in DeRuyter’s debut season, making it the first time Texas Tech had surrendered fewer than 30 points since 2009.
Minnesota’s Joe Rossi has been superb for the Gophers since he took over a defense that ranked No. 86 in the nation in 2018. In the past two years, they ranked in the top 10. The 44-year-old from Pittsburgh has been consistently good, having allowed only one opponent (UNC this year) to produce more than 500 yards in a game since 2020. The Gophers rank No. 39 in total defense this season. They’re No. 24 in run defense and No. 11 in turnovers gained. In three of the past four seasons, the Gophers have ranked in the top 10 in fewest plays of 20-plus yards allowed.
Another Big Ten option to watch is Rutgers defensive coordinator Joe Harasymiak. The Scarlet Knights are much improved this season and rank No. 10 in the nation in total defense and No. 2 in fewest plays of 20 yards or more allowed (behind Iowa). In 2022, Rutgers had its best statistical season in a decade. The 37-year-old had also done an outstanding job as a head coach at Maine prior to taking an assistant job at Minnesota under Rossi.
(Photo of Jim Leonhard: John Fisher / Getty Images)