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OU football: How will Alex Grinch fix the Sooner defense? The foundation is turnovers

Oklahoma linebacker Caleb Kelly celebrates a fumble recovery in the Bedlam game last season, one of only 11 turnovers caused by the Sooner defense in 2018. [PHOTO BY SARAH PHIPPS, THE OKLAHOMAN]

Oklahoma linebacker Caleb Kelly celebrates a fumble recovery in the Bedlam game last season, one of only 11 turnovers caused by the Sooner defense in 2018. [PHOTO BY SARAH PHIPPS, THE OKLAHOMAN]

NORMAN — Lincoln Riley calls it mentality.

You may refer to it as attitude or identity or even culture. But regardless of what term is used, everyone can agree after these past few seasons that the Oklahoma defense needs to change it.

"Scheme's great, scheme's important, scheme's certainly a part of this process," the Sooner head coach said the other day as he sat beside his newly hired defensive coordinator, Alex Grinch. "But I think we both agree the mentality, the team chemistry ... (are) ultimately the difference makers."

The Sooners need to fix their attitude.

But how?

No coach is going to share every method or means, but Grinch and the position coaches who are coming with him to Norman pulled back the curtain a bit when they met with the media a week ago. Each of them provided a couple bricks, and when you stack them together, you start to see how this house could be built.

The foundation is turnovers.

The Sooners have been talking about forcing more turnovers for years. For good reason, too. Only once in the past five seasons has the OU defense caused more than 20 turnovers.

2014: 19 takeaways.

2015: 27.

2016: 17.

2017: 19.

2018: 11.

Some of those numbers have been among the worst in college football. So, of course the Sooners have talked about needing to cause more turnovers. Force fumbles. Intercept passes. But clearly, talking about it and actually doing it are two entirely different things.

Grinch talks about getting turnovers, too, but he does so in a completely new way. He believes getting the ball back is the purpose of the defense. Period. End stop.

"Obviously, you want to limit points. You want to contain yards," Grinch said. "But the purpose behind every play in football is for the defense to get the ball back to the offense."

Grinch contends that defensive focus is never in question in other sports. When a basketball team's on defense, it wants to get the ball back. Same for a soccer team. A lacrosse team. On and on.

But in football, that goal can get obscured. Defensive success is sometimes measured by points allowed or yards surrendered or a ton of other metrics.

Grinch sees turnovers as the metric that matters most. He believes so much in their importance that he wanted to see if there was a measurable correlation to wins. When he was first a defensive coordinator at Washington State, he conducted a study based on the 2014 season, and looking at Power 5 teams, he discovered those teams forcing at least 24 turnovers averaged nine wins. No matter the conference. No matter the schedule. No matter any other statistic, whether on defense, offense or special teams.

That only steeled Grinch's resolve to build his defenses around turnovers.

"It gives a singular purpose to every member of your defense on every down as to why we're out there," he said.

The implementation of that guiding principle changed the mindset at Washington State. Before Grinch arrived, the Cougars were as sorry defensively as the Sooners have been. But that changed right away.

Washington State went from forcing eight turnovers in 2014 to forcing 24 in 2015, Grinch's first season there.

Won nine games that year, too.

How'd they do it?

"These kids are 18 to 21 ... and they need something to hold onto," said Roy Manning, OU's new cornerbacks coach and Grinch's sidekick at Washington State. "When the (opposing) offense is rolling a little bit and have a first down or have a score or back-to-back scores, kids want to have something they can hold onto and say, 'How are we going to get this thing turning back in our favor?'"

The answer: seeing every play as a chance to cause a turnover.

Grinch and Co. drill that point home in meetings. Film. Practice. Everything that they do is built on the premise that causing turnovers is the most important thing they can do.

That resonated so completely with the players at Washington State that the first full scrimmage after Grinch arrived became contentious. Offensive players weren't used to the defensive players trying to strip the ball every play. The defense was grabbing at it, swiping, punching.

Fights broke out.

The OU offensive should consider itself warned because Grinch plans to do the same thing in Norman.

"Turnovers, we're going to be huge on that," Manning said. "I don't care if you're a five-star or a one-star. Everybody can get the ball out. ... That doesn't take talent or really ability to have an awareness or a mindset that every time we're going out there, we're going to get the ball back."

That isn't just a good formula for winning ballgames. It's good for the mindset of the OU defense. This bunch has been beat up and beat down. It has seemed resigned. It has looked defeated.

But the notion that every play is an opportunity for a turnover is powerful. It can spur aggression. It can provide hope.

Best for the Sooners, it could spark the attitude adjustment this defense needs.

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or Like her at, follow her at or view her personality page at

Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›