Lincoln Riley retains Alex Grinch as USC defensive coordinator despite major struggles

USC finished the season ranked near the bottom nationally in an assortment of statistical categories on defense, but head coach Lincoln Riley is not planning to make any changes to his staff.

That includes defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, the subject of much frustration among the Trojans’ fan base.

Riley spoke with local reporters Tuesday in Los Angeles and explained his reasoning for retaining Grinch, who has been Riley’s defensive coordinator the past four seasons — three at Oklahoma and one at USC.

While USC was adept at forcing turnovers in 2022, it allowed a whopping 6.53 yards per play this season, which ranked 124th out of 131 FBS teams. Additionally, USC’s defense finished 117th in yards per carry allowed (4.98) and 113th in yards per attempt (8.0) by opposing passers.

The Trojans were carried all season by an offense led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Caleb Williams. USC went 11-1 in the regular season, despite allowing 35 or more points in four of its final six games.

The Trojans were on the verge of the College Football Playoff but got routed by Utah 47-24 in the Pac-12 title game. In the loss, the Utes put up 533 yards of offense, averaged 7.7 yards per play and had three touchdown plays of 50-plus yards in the second half. That loss knocked USC from the CFP field and instead set up a meeting with Tulane in the Cotton Bowl.

That was another ugly performance from the defense, as Tulane put up 539 yards on just 52 offensive plays, with running back Tyjae Spears going off for 205 yards and four touchdowns on 17 carries. USC had a 45-30 lead with 4:30 to play but allowed the Green Wave to rally back and win 46-45 with a touchdown with nine seconds remaining.

With the loss, USC finished 11-3 in Riley’s first season on the job after going 4-8 in 2021. Still, the performance of the defense ultimately hampered what could have been an even better season.

Even after a disappointing season on defense, Lincoln Riley said Alex Grinch will remains the defensive coordinator. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Even after a disappointing season on defense, Lincoln Riley said Alex Grinch will remains the defensive coordinator. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Riley: 'The roster's got to get better'

Grinch helped overhaul a struggling defense at Washington State and spent a season at Ohio State before landing at Oklahoma with Riley. He oversaw significant improvement with the Sooners in his first two seasons, though there was noticeable regression in 2021 before he and Riley left for USC.

When Riley arrived at USC, he quickly replenished the roster with talent from the transfer portal. But the team’s additions on offense far outweighed what was added to the defense.

Riley said Tuesday that the roster needs to improve from both a talent and depth perspective.

“The reality is for us to make the jump defensively we’ve got to make, yeah, the roster’s got to get better. The development’s got to get better. I have to be better in my role for it. I still have an important role there, and to be honest, I’m looking at this excited at what I can do better,” Riley said, per The Athletic.

Two of USC’s top defensive players, defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu and cornerback Mekhi Blackmon, have declared for the NFL draft.

Five defensive transfers have committed to USC. The headliner of the group is former Oklahoma State linebacker Mason Cobb, who had 96 tackles and 13 tackles for loss this season. Other additions include linebacker Jamil Muhammad (Georgia State), defensive lineman Kyon Barrs (Arizona), cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace (Arizona) and defensive lineman Jack Sullivan (Purdue).