COACH AND PROGRAM
Over the last nine years TCU has emerged as one of the nation's best and most consistent programs, going to eight bowl games, and the Horned Frogs have done so by refusing to acknowledge they are as good as the numbers suggest."We always take the approach that we are the underdog," head coach Gary Patterson said. "When you do that your kids come out battling, and this season will be no different."
Patterson and his players may believe they are underdogs, but there is little evidence to support that claim. The revival of the Horned Frogs' proud program was started by Dennis Franchione in 1998, but it is Patterson, who took over in 2001, that has made the run more than a temporary uptick. TCU has reached a point where success is expected, not just hoped for.
Since the turn of the century, TCU is 64-21, the 11th best Football Bowl Subdivision record in the nation. Under Patterson's watch, the Horned Frogs have won at least 10 games in four of the last five seasons, have beaten their last four Big 12 opponents and are 12-6 against teams from conferences with Bowl Championship Series bids.
Despite finishing four of the last five seasons ranked in the Top 25, including No. 9 in 2005 when it upset Oklahoma in Norman, TCU has mostly flown under the national radar. The program's success, while considerable, hasn't been enough to crash the final frontier -- the BCS. Utah in 2004 and Boise State last season have more than proven that non-BCS teams are capable of knocking off the game's elite, now TCU hopes to follow suit.
"We are 2-0 when they've allowed a team from a non-qualifying conference to play in those games," Patterson said. "I don't think there is much difference in conferences when you take the top one or two teams out. I think we have as good a chance to go to a BCS game as anybody [but Texas and Oklahoma]."
The addition of a fifth BCS game has made it considerably easier for teams from non-qualifying leagues to join the party. Now it's up to TCU to kick down the door. The Horned Frogs return 15 starters, including nine from a defense that was ranked second nationally, from an 11-2 team that finished the season on an eight-game winning streak.
During the streak, which included a 37-7 rout of Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl, TCU outscored opponents by 24.4 points per game. The Horned Frogs' offense was potent during the run, averaging 35 points, but the team was defined by its defense. TCU, which returns three first team All-MWC players, was second nationally against the run (60.8 ypg), second in total defense (219.5 ypg) and third in scoring defense (12.3 ppg).
Opponents scored as many as 17 points only three times in 2006 -- all in successive weeks -- and TCU lost two of the three games. Most painfully, the losses came against MWC rivals BYU and Utah, costing the Horned Frogs the conference title.
The loss to BYU, which scored 31 points and gained 393 yards, both opponent highs, was particularly painful because it followed the team's most impressive win, a 12-3 throttling of Texas Tech. It marked the second consecutive season TCU followed a Big 12 victory with a disappointing loss. In 2005, the Horned Frogs defeated Oklahoma, only to lose to SMU the following week, their only loss of the season.
Offensively, TCU was very much a ground-based attack and that won't change this season, especially with the team breaking in a new quarterback and trying to establish several new receivers. The Horned Frogs' first three non-conference opponents -- Baylor, Texas and SMU -- are all against old Southwest Conference rivals, so Patterson won't enjoy the benefit of easing a new quarterback in, but the defense should provide enough cover, at least against Baylor and SMU.
"We have starters coming back," Patterson said. "The key will be how hungry they are. Do they want to be as good as they were a year ago? One of the things that make us a good football team is this team plays with a lot of hunger and a lot of passion. It plays for 60 minutes. If they come back and do that, we will have the depth and a chance to be the same type of defense we were a year ago."
Patterson hasn't used his success in Fort Worth to bolt to a BCS school. He has become the face of Horned Frogs football, and as a result the program is in the throes of its most successful run in 70 years.
TCU is a testament to the depth of high school talent in Texas and what a shrewd evaluator and an excellent coach can mean to a program. Despite having to compete with Texas, Texas A&M and schools from around the nation for players, Patterson has assembled a winning roster made up disproportionately of Texans. A staggering 77 of the 87 players on TCU's spring roster played high school football in-state.
When Patterson gets players to campus, he clearly knows how to mold them. He plays a lot of players and plays them early, with an emphasis on developing quality depth.
"If you look across the nation, everyone gets people hurt and how well your twos and threes play really decides whether you can come in and win a championship," he said. "We just don't take it that a guy will grow up when it's his time. We try to push him into a situation where he will grow up before his time."
TCU is likely to continue its growth under Patterson, who is already third on the school's all-time wins list. Perhaps the greatest testament to the job he does in preparing his players is this: TCU is 16-3 over the last four years in game's decided by a touchdown or less. Patterson coached teams are typically mentally tough and won't beat themselves.
One of the biggest questions involving the 2007 Horned Frogs is who will be under center, and spring practice did little to resolve the issue. Sophomore Marcus Jackson (6-1, 216) and redshirt freshman Andy Dalton (6-3, 185) are the leading candidates to replace the graduated Jeff Ballard, a second team all-conference selection. <!---------------------INLINE TABLE (BEGIN)-------------------->
|Inside the Mountain West
<!---------------------INLINE TABLE (END)--------------------> Patterson didn't express a great deal of concern over who will start at quarterback, saying he just needs someone to manage the game. With a strong running game and a stout defense, TCU can obviously get by just fine, but if the Horned Frogs are to reclaim the MWC crown, it will need someone who can do more than just hand the ball off.Ballard, who Patterson called the worst practice quarterback he has had at TCU, shined at game time. As a senior, he completed 61.9 percent of his passes and threw for 2,394 yards and 13 touchdowns against just five interceptions. He also ran for 423 yards and eight touchdowns.
The two-year starter was the most accurate passer in TCU history, and he finished with a record of 19-2 as starter, so his loss isn't an insignificant one.
The most likely candidate to win the job is Jackson, who played well in limited duty last season. In the season-opener against Baylor, Jackson stepped in for a woozy Ballard and led TCU to a come-from-behind 17-7 victory. Playing his first collegiate game as a redshirt freshman, Jackson went 11-of-13 and threw for 143 yards and two touchdowns, includ-ing an 84-yard scoring pass to Aaron Brown.
Jackson replaced an injured Ballard in the second half against Utah and was an impressive 11-of-19 for 158 yards, but was unable to get TCU in the end zone. He finished the sea-son 26-of-44 for 386 yards and two TDs.
In an offense that calls on the quarterback to run the ball, Jackson is the faster than Dalton or Ballard from a season ago.
Dalton, who sat out last season as a redshirt, has prototypical size and an impressive high school resume. He was the Houston Chronicle Greater Houston Area Offensive Player of the Year and a finalist for the Texas Football 5A player of the year after leading Katy to the state finals. How any of that will translate this fall is still to be determined, but Dalton did enough in spring to prevent Jackson from earning the job outright.
Regardless of what happens in preseason practice, Dalton and Jackson will have the opportunity to earn playing time once the season starts.
"They will both play in the Baylor game," Patterson said. "I don't know yet [if we will play two quarterbacks throughout the season]. If we can, we'd love to say one or the other can be the starter. It will really come down to who the rest of the team reacts to and how they play when they are in the huddle. What we want the quarterback to do is make everyone else better."
Improving everyone else is a tall order for an inexperienced quarterback, but neither Jackson nor Dalton lack for talent. The fact Jackson has already played well under duress -- see the 17 second half points he led TCU to in the opener against Baylor -- would seemingly provide Patterson and his teammates with a certain level of comfort entering the season.
Redshirt freshman Zack Eskridge (6-3, 195) is third on the depth chart, but after playing in a run-oriented offense for much of his high school career, he isn't ready yet.
TCU is able to break in a new quarterback without diminished offensive expectations because of the strength of its running game, particularly tailback Aaron Brown (6-1, 196). The speedy Brown, a second team All-MWC selection in 2006, is one of the most explosive backs in the nation.He rushed for 801 yards, including a career high 166 in a win against Colorado State, and nine touchdowns as a sophomore, averaging 5.2 yards. Brown is a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball, whether he is taking a hand off or a pass out of the backfield. He caught 34 passes for 455 yards -- a total that made him the team's second leading receiver -- and four touchdowns.
Brown is TCU's most dangerous offensive weapon, but to this point hasn't been an every down workhorse like former Horned Frog great LaDanian Tomlinson.
"When you've got a great tailback, people have to defend the run and it makes a big difference," Patterson said of the threat Brown presents. "Aaron will get a lot of touches, but it could be [as a receiver] or running it."
Brown averaged 15.6 touches per game as a runner and receiver in 2006, a number that was artificially low because of a sprained ankle that forced him to miss the Utah game and slowed him in a couple of others. Barring injury, Brown will almost certainly register more than the 154 carries he had last year, just how many more is the question.
Given that TCU ran the ball 65 percent of the time last season, replacing the graduated Lonta Hobbs, who was second on the team in rushing with 665 yards and fourth on the school's career list, is of vital importance. Patterson's stockpile of running backs suffered a blow when junior Detrick James was dismissed from the team for a violation of university policy.
James, who ran for 198 yards last season, earned important early-season playing time when Brown and Hobbs were injured, but a broken arm suffered in practice ended his season after five games. Despite being removed from the team, James was allowed to remain in school.
Regardless of whether James was on the roster, sophomore Joseph Turner (6-1, 226) seemed poised to become Brown's primary backup. He was impressive in limited duty last season, gaining 166 yards on just 24 attempts, and he's a breakaway threat. Turner's potential emergence would give the Horned Frogs more of a true power back. TCU is long on speed, but Turner is 30 pounds heavier than any other tailback on the two-deep.
Junior Justin Watts (5-10, 185) is the likely beneficiary of James' dismissal. He rushed for a total of 208 yards in his first two seasons, but struggled to earn carries in a crowded backfield. The hard-working Watts will be given every opportunity to earn playing time.
Senior William Jackson (6-0, 235) will return for his third season as the starting fullback. There is nothing fancy about Jackson, who has 17 career carries, but he has proven effective at helping clear holes, and that shouldn't change.
Sophomore Chris Smith (5-11, 231) is being groomed as Jackson's eventual replacement. Smith gained 41 yards and scored a touchdown last season, with those modest numbers coming mostly in Horned Frog blowouts.
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
This is the unit Patterson expressed the most concern with entering the season. TCU's primary objective will be finding a replacement for Quentily Harmon, who was the team's most prolific receiver by a wide margin. Harmon caught 18 more passes (52) and gained 346 more yards (791) than anyone else on the team.Micha DePriest was the other graduated starter but his modest numbers -- four catches for 154 yards -- should be far easier to replace.
Junior Donald Massey (5-11, 172) is the most accomplished returning receiver. He had 332 yards receiving and all three of his touchdowns came in a 52-0 win against San Diego State. Massey, who started his career as a defensive back and played as a freshman in 2004, is also a standout kick returner.
Massey will be the primary inside receiver, but the challenge will be finding an outside target. Senior Ervin Dickerson (6-1, 200) and junior Walter Bryant (6-4, 206) sat atop the spring depth chart, but they aren't certainties. Dickerson had a catch in nine of 13 games last year but totaled just 12 receptions for 96 yards. Bryant's 2006 campaign was equally pedestrian -- 10 catches, 98 yards.
Redshirt freshmen Clint Renfro (6-0, 160), Bart Johnson (6-1, 190) and Jimmy Young (6-1, 200) could push for a starting spot. Renfro, despite his lack of size, has an excellent pedigree. His father, Mike, was a TCU all-American and played for the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Oilers. His uncle, Mark, also played at TCU, and his grandfather, Ray, was an all-pro selection for the Cleveland Browns. If past is a precedent in the Renfro family, Clint, who has 4.4 40-yard dash speed, could be a contributor.
Senior Derek Moore (6-3, 177) will also look to carve out a more significant role in the offense. Moore has 27 career catches to his credit.
The Horned Frogs don't throw the ball, often but with an inexperienced quarterback, they will need their wide receivers to do the job when called upon.
Junior Shae Reagan (6-4, 261) should more than capably handle tight-end duties. The converted quarterback was a chain-moving machine for TCU in 2006. All 14 of his catches resulted in first downs, and he averaged a team-best 21.4 yards per catch (300 yards).
Senior Quinton Cunigan (6-3, 237) and freshman Evan Frosch (6-4, 235) will be the primary reserves.
The true strength of TCU's offense is in the trenches. The loss of two starters, including two-time, first team All-MWC selection Herb Taylor, hardly seems to matter. TCU is returning nine lettermen along a line that should be the best in the league."We can't be any worse than we were a year ago because we only lost two seniors," Patterson said. "I think we will be a lot better along the offensive line."
It's a thought that must make opposing defensive coordinators shudder. TCU allowed just 15 sacks last season, sixth fewest in the country, and averaged 194 yards rushing per game.
Left guard Matt Lindner (6-4, 298) leads the returnees. The second team All-MWC selection had 40 knockdown blocks and started all 13 games a season ago. Lindner sat out spring practice with a knee injury suffered in the Poinsettia Bowl but should be fully recovered by the start of fall practice.
Senior center Blake Schlueter (6-3, 272) and senior left tackle Wade Sisk (6-7, 271) are the other returning starters. Schlueter excelled in the second half of last season and could be as good as any center in recent TCU history. Sisk will be making the move from right tackle.
Junior Heath Raetz (6-5, 297), who sat out the spring with a knee injury, is the expected starter at right guard, where he would pair with rising star right tackle Marshall Newhouse (6-3, 317), the only true freshman to play on offense last season. Newhouse's father, John, played on three Cotton Bowl teams at Houston, and his cousin, Robert, is a former Dallas Cowboy standout.
Sophomores Nic Richmond (6-8, 298) and Tyler Marrou (6-5, 268) will provide depth at left tackle. Junior Preston Phillips (6-6, 293) is the primary reserve at left guard. Senior Tony Savino (6-2, 277) and junior Giles Montgomery (6-5, 288) are second on the depth chart at center and right guard, respectively. Massive freshman Marcus Cannon (6-5, 319) will back up Newsome.
Senior Chris Manfredini (5-9, 165) is one of the most accurate field goal kickers in the nation. Manfredini was 12-of-14 last season and he is 35-of-38 all-time, including one year at Cincinnati. The concern about Manfredini is he doesn't have the strongest of legs, and he has shown a troubling propensity to miss or have extra points blocked. He has made a higher percentage of field goals (92 percent) than extra points (90 percent) over his career.The graduated Pete LoCoco attempted most of the long field goals, making 5-of-6 between 40 and 49 yards. Manfredini, who has made just three kicks beyond 40 yards in his career, will be called upon to be the fulltime kicker this season.
Senior Derek Moore (6-3, 177) is expected to be the holder.
The Horned Frogs' embarrassment of riches on the defensive side of the ball starts along the line. Seniors Tommy Blake (6-3, 252) and Chase Ortiz (6-3, 255) make a strong case for being the nation's best pair of defensive ends, and both are two-time first team All-MWC selections.Blake led the MWC in tackles for loss with 16.5 a season ago, five more than the runner-up, Ortiz. Blake, who played running back in high school and runs a 4.5-4.6 40-yard dash, finished 2006 with 83 tackles, seven sacks, two forced fumbles and two recovered fumbles. With a lightening quick first step off the edge, Blake is a matchup nightmare for opposing tackles. He is on nearly every preseason All-America team and on the watch list for the Chuck Bednarik Award, Ted Hendricks Award, Lombardi Trophy, Lott Trophy and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy.
"He runs well for a defensive end and he's very tenacious when he steps on the field," Patterson said. "He tries to be the best he can be, and I think that is what gives him an edge."
Ortiz is nearly as good. He had 11 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks last season, numbers that were down in comparison to his sophomore season, when he had 14 tackles for loss and nine sacks. Opposing offensive lines can't afford to double team Blake or Ortiz; the one left with a single blocker often makes them pay.
Junior Matt Panfil (6-2, 232) and sophomore Allen Christopher (6-4, 236) are listed as second-team ends, but sophomore Jerry Hughes (6-2, 248) and freshman Clarence Leatch (6-4, 238) are players to watch. Hughes, a high school running back, was one of just four freshmen to play a year ago. Leatch was the defensive MVP of TCU's scout team.
The play of Blake and Ortiz obscured the work done by returning defense tackle James Vess (6-3, 282), a junior. Vess started the final eight games and recorded 8.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. Sophomore Wayne Daniels (6-2, 240) will try to make the move inside to back up Vess.
The only hole on the defense line was created by the graduation of tackle Jarrarcea Williams, who finished last season with 19 tackles. Williams wasn't the line's most productive player, but he was its biggest, checking in at 6-0, 316 pounds. Junior Cody Moore (6-1, 292) who played in all 13 games last season, is the heir apparent. A pair of redshirt fresh-men, Cory Grant (6-2, 303) and Henry Niutie (6-4, 292), will push Moore for playing time.
TCU plays fewer linebackers than most teams -- starting just two -- but there is no shortage of production. The unit is led by junior middle linebacker Jason Phillips (6-1, 234), a two-time All-MWC honoree. Phillips has started all 25 games he has played at TCU and is the team's leading returning tackler, registering 73 last season.Senior David Hawthorne (6-0, 225) returns for his third year as a starter at strongside linebacker. He had 43 tackles, including six for loss, in 2006.
Junior Robert Henson (6-0, 225) was an honorable-mention All-MWC pick despite not starting a game, Henson was third on the team in tackles with 64 and could supplant Henson in the lineup, though both will see plenty of action.
"They are all coming back," Patterson said of his linebackers. "It's probably the best group we've had, as a whole, in my 10 years here."
Senior Darrius Ingram (6-2, 235) and sophomore Daryl Washington (6-3, 228) hope to see time behind Phillips.
Looking for a defensive weakness, any chink in the armor of what should be one of the country's best units? It's not here.TCU returns a pair of sophomore cornerbacks, Rafael Priest (5-10, 163) and Nick Sanders (5-10, 174), that started and allowed just nine touchdown passes as freshmen.
"You don't know if it was because of the pass rush or they just played [well], but we only allowed nine touchdown passes," Patterson said. "That is playing a Baylor and Texas Tech, teams that throw the ball a lot. I don't think there will be any surprises this year. We will find out how well they played because people will know them better."
Sanders, an honorable-mention freshman All-American, broke up seven passes and had three interceptions. Opposing teams aren't likely to pick on him and Priest, despite his solid play as a freshman, likely won't be the opening game starter.
Senior Torrey Stewart (5-11, 175) closed last season, his first in Fort Worth, with a rush, intercepting passes in the final three games. He overtook Priest, who broke up a team high nine passes but didn't intercept one, for the starting job in the spring and is expected to hold it through the fall, giving TCU three quality cornerbacks.
Safeties are an integral part of the TCU defense -- it starts three -- and the loss of Marvin White, a fourth-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals, is a considerable one. White led the team in tackles (86) and interceptions (four) a season ago.
Patterson lauded the spring effort of juniors Stephen Hodge (6-0, 212) and Steven Coleman (6-3, 204) and one of the two will replace White. Both players were special teams standouts a season ago, but Coleman earned more time in the secondary, starting two games in place of an injured David Roach (6-2, 215) at free safety.
Roach, a senior, returns as a starter along with senior Brian Bonner (5-11, 199), the starter at free safety. Bonner, a former high school quarterback, is the most accomplished returning safety, recording 49 tackles, 4.5 sacks and two interceptions last year, including one in the final minute to clinch a 27-21 win against New Mexico.
Senior Derek Walsh (6-4, 177) will compete with red-shirt freshman David Porter (5-11, 170) for the starting job. Walsh punted 13 times last season, averaging just 37.5 yards per punt. Bryan Courtney, who graduated, handled the bulk of the punting in '06, but he wasn't much better, averaging only 38.5 yards.The punting game is a genuine concern entering the season.
Patterson makes it a point of emphasis to get a lot of players on the field, and that benefits his coverage teams. The Horned Frogs allowed just 6.5 yards per punt return and only 18.8 on kickoffs.TCU also boasts a strong return game. Bonner was a first team All-MWC punt returner, averaging 12.7 yard per return. Massey will return kickoffs.
Sophomore Clint Grisham (6-4, 215) will handle long-snapping duties.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
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|Grading the Frogs
<!-- INLINE TABLE (END) --> With a schedule that includes a trip to Texas and what should be a deeper Mountain West, expecting TCU to make a BCS breakthrough may be asking too much. But the Horned Frogs are loaded. The defense was ranked second in the nation last season and should be even better in '07. TCU should be nothing short of dominant on that side of the ball.Patterson expressed the most concern about his receiving corps, but if TCU finds a quarterback, it will be fine offensively. It's mildly concerning that Jackson, who has game experience, didn't seize the job in spring practice, but the team's offensive line and running game should smooth the transition.
BYU will be good again but the Horned Frogs are a clear favorite for their second MWC crown in three years. Barring significant injuries, anything less than another 10-win season would be considered a disappointment.