Alex Grinch, Parker Henry aim to continue Washington State's defensive surge

Two seasons ago, Washington State's defense forced only eight turnovers -- the lowest total in the nation. Increasing that number was priority No. 1 for new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch when he stepped onto campus before 2015.

Grinch didn't beat around the bush in his introductory meeting with Cougars' players. As soon as the lights in the room dimmed, Grinch's first slide on the projector showed a blunt message: "Turnovers = Victory."

Within a few days, Washington State defenders were earning small prizes for takeaways on the practice field. Free Cougar T-shirts and candy bars, the rewards for players who recorded the most strips, became all the rage. And as these seemingly simple items became some of the most sought-after commodities in the Washington State locker room, the Cougars began to transform the way in which they swarmed to the football.

"There was an incentive to make plays and get those turnovers," nickelback Parker Henry said. "That was the beginning of how [Coach Grinch] changed the culture."

Results were immediate. In Year 1 under their new coordinator, the Cougars tripled their takeaway count -- from 2014's paltry total of eight to 24 -- surging from 127th to 34th in that regard nationally.

Not coincidentally, the Cougars also tripled their win total, finishing 9-4 just one season after a bitterly disappointing 3-9 campaign.

Washington State now enters 2016 as a contender in the Pac-12 North. T-shirts and candy bars are no longer the only motivators in the defensive room: The Cougars feel that they've become a legitimate threat to take the league crown, so Grinch is working to reach a more advanced implementation of what he calls his defense's "hair-on-fire" mentality. That's something he deems a prerequisite for success at Washington State, a program that doesn't typically net as many blue chip defensive players as its Pac-12 counterparts.

"It's our job as coaches to keep it simple so that guys can play fast and with extreme effort," Grinch said. "We can't allow our opponents to match that level of effort. If they're playing a certain level, we have to find a way to crank it up that much more."

Perhaps no Washington State player is more emblematic of Grinch's influence on the defense than Henry, a 5-foot-11 fifth-year senior whom Leach has praised as "the greatest overachiever I've ever coached."

Looking for a way to shore up the Cougars' struggling secondary while maintaining adaptability against the run, Grinch implemented the nickelback as a staple of Washington State's defense during his grand defensive overhaul before last season.

Henry, a former running back who had been unable to bulk up enough to play inside linebacker, eventually discovered a home at this hybrid position, which serves as the glue of Grinch's defense. He racked up 71 tackles in 2015.

"I found my niche," Henry said. "I can come up and hit running backs, and I've worked with the coaches to see success in pass coverage."

As far as Washington State is concerned, that means that Henry is consistently around the football -- regardless of whether he's defending a running or a passing play. And he's not the only one whom Grinch has molded into such a versatile presence: Safety Shalom Luani and linebacker Peyton Pelluer have also emerged as number-producing machines.

Their combined efforts have created the desired swarming effect -- or precisely the one that triples takeaway counts from one season to the next.

Now, the Cougars are gunning to take the next step as a defense, and they're widening their targeted scope of improvement. Washington State improved significantly against the pass last year -- allowing only 6.8 yards per attempt, down from 8.3 in 2014 -- but worsened against the run while restructuring its defensive line.

Grinch is banking on big years of improvement from defensive linemen Robert Barber, Hercules Mata'afa, and Daniel Ekuale so that his team stiffens up in the trenches. If Washington State can find some depth beyond those three players, the front can be rigid enough to set the table for the bevy of returners -- see Pelluer, Henry, and Luani -- on the back end.

"That'll help us limit those explosive plays," Grinch said. "The ones that every offense in the nation has been so good at getting."

It'll also help with Grinch's original goal, the one the Cougars tackled so well in his first season: forcing turnovers.

So, if all goes according to plan in Year 2 of the Grinch era, the Washington State staff better load up on T-shirts and candy bars now.