It was supposed to be the Year of TCU, a season in which the Horned Frogs returned to the glory years of Sammy Baugh and Davey O'Brien and competed for the national championship. By all accounts, they were the best of the non-BCS teams and a win at Texas in early September and watch out, TCU was going to run the table.
Yes, we're exaggerating a little. No one really expected the Frogs to win the national title. Blue Ribbon had them 19th in the preseason rankings, but there was legitimate talk of TCU being a stronger team top to bottom than Boise State was in 2006. And who knows, maybe it was that first day of fall camp.
It just never happened for the Frogs, who had entered 2007 having won at least 10 games in four of five seasons. They were more competitive than the 34-13 final at Texas indicated, but they lost in overtime to Air Force the following week before later succumbing to Wyoming, Utah and BYU.
The season more or less fell apart for TCU -- if an eight-win season with a bowl victory can really be classified as a season falling apart -- in mid-August during fall camp. In less than a week, preseason All-America defensive end Tommy Blake left the team for personal reasons -- it was later revealed that he was suffering from depression -- and All-Mountain West nose tackle James Vess was suspended for the season per a violation of school policy. Blake eventually returned, but he wasn't himself the entire season and finished with just four sacks in eight games.
TCU also ranked seventh in the nation with 37 missed games by preseason projected starters.
"We had a lot of distractions last year," head coach Gary Patterson said. "We probably have more team chemistry right now than we've had the past two seasons. We went 8-5 one year, 11-2 the other. We're not as flashy a team this year, as far as big names, but it's the kind of team I'd like to have, anyway."
For Patterson, few coaches have a more impressive mark than his 62-25 record in seven seasons at TCU. That's the best in program history after 87 games, even better than Dutch Meyer, who won a pair of national titles in 1935 and 1938.
At some point, it's hard to imagine a BCS program making him an offer he can't refuse. He has reportedly already turned down offers from Kansas State and Minnesota, so it's not like he's on the first cattle train out of Fort Worth, although it's worth noting he did interview for the recent openings at Nebraska and Arkansas. So he's obviously interested if the situation is to his liking. However, at least for this season Patterson remains at TCU, where he'll quickly get to what kind of team he has on his hands. The Frogs open at New Mexico before home games against Stephen F. Austin and Stanford.
"It wouldn't be my pick, but one thing I like is if I'm going to start the season with a conference game, I want it to be a good game, because I know our kids will get ready for it and they were excited about seeing that we're going to play a team the level of New Mexico," Patterson said. "Anytime we've started with a high-level game, they've worked so hard in the summer time to get ready for those kinds of games."
And without question the most anticipated game on the schedule is at Oklahoma on Sept. 27. Most may recall the Frogs' last visit to Norman, in which TCU dominated the Soon-ers as 25-point underdogs in a 17-10 win in 2005. It's worth noting that Oklahoma is taking both the week before and after the TCU contest off. When told this, Patterson laughed.
"I guess we made a point last time up there; I take it as a sign of respect," Patterson said.
While everyone assumes that sophomore Andy Dalton (6-3, 210) is set to start the opener at New Mexico, that's not actually the case. Well, maybe it is, Patterson isn't exactly forthcoming with sharing team information with reporters, but whatever it's worth, here was his reply in mid June to the quarterback competition between junior Marcus Jackson (6-1, 216) and Dalton.
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<!-- -INLINE TABLE (END) -->"I don't look at it as having a starter and a backup, we have a 1A and a 1B; both had good springs and this team has a good sophomore quarterback and a good junior quarterback," Patterson said. "They both fought through a lot of things last season."
This could become an explosive situation, and the fact that Patterson isn't saying Dalton, or even Jackson, is his guy could lead to each looking over their shoulder after a bad pass. It also leads to confusion in the huddle and teammates taking sides.
However, it's hard to second-guess a coach with a .713 career winning percentage. Dalton took the majority of the first-team snaps this spring, and he posted one of the great freshmen passing seasons in program history. His 222 completions and 371 attempts (59.8 completion percentage) were each school marks for a freshman, while his 2,459 yards were second. He also tallied two 300-yard games.
Dalton finished the year strong, too, throwing just one legitimate interception over his final 96 pass attempts and averaging 52.5 rushing yards over his final four games. And four of his five rushing touchdowns came over that same stretch.
His best performance of the season arguably came in the Texas Bowl win over Houston when he completed 21-of-30 passes for 249 yards in a 20-13 win. He also rushed for a touchdown. For the season, Dalton played in all 13 games and threw 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. His passer efficiency rating was 118.48. And not including sacks, he rushed for 411 yards. This spring, he looked more comfortable in the pocket as well as throwing the ball downfield. There's only one reason he isn't the clear-cut, absolute No. 1 -- turnovers.
As for Jackson, he played eight games and completed 35-of-69 passes for 368 yards, three touchdowns and just one interception. Extremely mobile and active in the pocket, Jack-son rushed for 265 yards minus sacks and two scores. He also led the Frogs on touchdown drives in three of the team's final five games while completing 71.4 percent of his 21 pass attempts over the team's final three games.
If healthy, and that's a major if, TCU might not have enough footballs for its backfield. That combination of star power and depth starts with senior Aaron Brown (6-1, 196). The 2007 preseason Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year battled ankle and knee injuries the majority of the season and never really got going. He still rushed for 490 yards and two scores in nine contests, but most were expecting numbers three times those entering the year.
Brown is perhaps the most talented back at TCU since LaDainian Tomlinson. He has breakaway speed and the power to break upper body tackles. As a sophomore in 2006, he earned second-team All-MWC honors behind 801 yards and nine touchdowns. He was also an adept receiver, with 34 receptions for 455 yards and four touchdowns.
Look for Brown to line up all over the field, especially with the team returning its top seven rushers from a season ago. Sure, he's the No. 1 guy, but more than 10-12 carries per game is highly unlikely. The primary goal will be keeping him healthy while at the same time utilizing his speed, and that probably means splitting him out 10-12 plays a game at wide receiver.
"I think it's safe to say we're going with a running back-by-committee approach -- two, three, maybe even four backs will get a chance," Patterson said.
While he missed spring drills recovering from a knee injury suffered in the Texas Bowl, junior Joseph Turner (6-1, 226) was in the midst of a running program in early June and was expected at 100 percent for August camp. He was the team's leading rusher last season with 597 yards at 5.2 per carry and the team's leading scorer among non-kickers with six touchdowns.
The problem was he wasn't always healthy, either. He played in only 10-of-13 games and ran at less than 100 percent the majority of the year. His teammates voted him offensive most valuable player, and with good reason -- TCU was 6-2 in games he was healthy from start to finish. The Frogs were also 5-0 when he rushed for at least 56 yards. His best game came at San Diego State and included 226 yards and four scores.
"He's our big back -- strong, tough to bring down on the initial hit," Patterson said of Turner. "We expect him at 100 percent early summer."
Senior Justin Watts (5-10, 195) was impressive off the bench in the Texas Bowl, rushing for 46 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries. He rushed for 204 yards on the year.
Also in the mix are redshirt freshmen Jai Cavness (5-8, 175), who projects more as a third-down back, and Jercell Fort (5-11, 175), a converted cornerback.
At fullback is junior Chris Smith (6-1, 231) and redshirt freshman Luke Shivers (6-0, 205). "Smith is the big back we need; he was impressive carrying the football this spring and he's going to see carries this season without question," Patterson said.
While the Frogs lost two starting wideouts, including their leading receiver in Ervin Dickerson, they should be just fine on this front, especially if senior Shae Reagan (6-4, 261) comes anywhere in the zip code of reaching his potential.
Make no mistake, this kid will at the very least have the opportunity to play on Sundays, and if he stays healthy this fall, he could land on many NFL teams' first-day draft board. Yes, he's that good.
A converted quarterback, Reagan runs a sub-4.60 40-yard dash and seems to make something happen every time he touches the ball. In two seasons, he has 25 catches for 493 yards, nearly 20 yards per, and three touchdowns. After missing two games and parts of several others with an assortment of injuries, Reagan caught a career-high three balls in the Texas Bowl. He hauled in a touchdown pass from Dalton in the spring game, marking the first time since 2004 that the first team offense scored on the starting defense.
When asked if he wanted to utilize Reagan more in the offense this season Patterson said, "It's not us. If he stays healthy he'll get more than enough balls."
Behind Regan at tight end is sophomore Evan Frosch (6-4, 235), who started three games last season and caught five balls for 35 yards.
At wideout, the lone returning starter is senior Donald Massey (5-11, 172), the team's second-leading receiver last season with 29 catches for 364 yards. For his career, Massey has 76 receptions. However, he's not even a lock to start and actually, after the spring he was listed No. 2 on the depth chart at the "Y."
The projected starters in a four-wideout formation are senior Walter Bryant (6-4, 206), sophomore Jimmy Young (6-1, 200) at the "X," sophomore Bart Johnson (6-1, 190) at the "H" and sophomore Jeremy Kerley (5-10, 185) at the "Y."
Bryant finished last season strong, highlighted by seven catches in the regular-season finale at San Diego State, and was the team's offseason MVP in terms of workouts and taking on a leadership role. He finished last year with 27 grabs for 337 yards and a touchdown.
Last season Young showed big-play potential and the ability to create separation with 23 caches for 325 yards and a score, while two of Johnson's six grabs went for touchdowns. Kerley hauled in five of his nine receptions in the team's final two games.
"Wide receiver is a position where we need a go-to guy," Patterson said.
Also in the mix are sophomores Clint Renfro (6-0, 160), son of the former TCU and Dallas Cowboys great and Pro Football Hall of Famer Mel Renfro, Curtis Clay (6-0, 180) and junior-college transfer Marques Parker (5-11, 179).
Four starters at back on the line. and while the unit wasn't bad last season, Patterson expects a lot more this time around.
"The offensive line has a chance to be a lot better," Patterson said. "We've grown up a lot there."
The anchor of the line without question is three-year starter Blake Schlueter (6-3, 272). The senior was a first-team All-Mountain West selection a season ago and is on the short-list of candidates to win the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center.
Both tackles are juniors, and each started all 13 games last season -- Marshall Newhouse (6-3, 317), who led the team in knockdown blocks and overall blocking grade, and Nic Richmond (6-8, 298).
Senior Giles Montgomery (6-5, 295) returns at one guard spot, while the other starting job is expected to fall to senior Preston Phillips (6-6, 293).
Perhaps the main objective with the incoming recruiting class was adding depth to the offensive line. The four signees include Trevius Jones (6-3, 293) of Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler, Texas; Blaize Foltz (6-4, 295) of Rose Hill High School in Rose Hill, Kansas; James Fry (6-3, 269) of La Vernia High School in Spring Branch, Texas; and junior-college transfer Zach Roth (6-5, 298) of Garden City (Kansas) Community College.
"With Zach Roth, we felt like we needed an older offensive lineman," Patterson said. "He was a first-team junior college All-American. James Fry probably has one of the best first steps for an offensive lineman. He is very smart and can call fronts. Blaize Foltz is a big offensive lineman who can move his feet. He and Fry can create some competition on our offensive line."
The graduation of three-time All-MWC kicker Chris Manfredini means that it's time for a new kicker, and Patterson believes he has that replacement in freshman Ross Evans (5-8, 173) of Burnet (Texas) High School.
"I am really excited about Ross Evans," Patterson said. "He can kick it in the end zone and made 15-of-16 field goals inside 49 yards. He has kicked two 53-yarders. He was also All-Texas both his junior and senior years. He is phenomenal, and his kickoffs will make us a lot better on defense.
"I am real excited about getting him here and seeing what he can do. It can change your whole complexion on offense. He will be a weapon. I see him kicking a lot of long field goals for us." Patterson was hopeful that a walk on would step up this spring to offer some competition, but it didn't happen.
It's unclear if Evans will kick off, although it would be reasonable to expect him to. The kickoffs were handled last season by junior Drew Combs (6-3, 225).
This defense has a chance to be special, and during the Patterson tenure at TCU, special means statistically ranking among the nation's elite.
Last season the Frogs placed among the top 15 nationally in scoring defense (18.7), run defense (103.5), pass defense efficiency (107.8 rating), sacks (41) and total defense (323.6 yards). And while officially only six starters return, this defense should be stronger in every area from a year ago outside of pass rush; returning players combined for just 21.5 sacks in 2007, with eight of those coming from a safety.
Both the starting ends are gone in Tommy Blake and Chase Ortiz, but their production can be replaced in part by the return of senior James Vess (6-3, 282) from a season-long suspension for a violation of university policy. As for what the violation was, perhaps no program in the country is more tight-lipped about such information as TCU.
Whatever the reason for his departure a year ago, Vess is a big-time nose tackle that should vie for all-conference honors. As a sophomore in 2006, he tallied four sacks in the final seven games and twice in that span was chosen TCU Defensive Player of the Week.
"I expect big things from the defense this season," Patterson said. "As much as we'll miss Blake and Chase, having James Vess back is huge. I think his loss last season affected the defense more than anything else that happened."
In the absence of Vess, sophomore Kelly Griffin (6-1, 280) started all 13 games and in the process became the first freshman to start during the Patterson era. This season he'll play behind Vess but should still see plenty of action. Senior Cody Moore (6-2, 303) is back at tackle, where he started 13 games in 2007 and contributed 5.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
At end are junior Jerry Hughes (6-2, 248), who had 29 tackles last season, and senior Matt Panfil (6-2, 232), who tallied 37 tackles while making six starts.
Redshirt freshman Braylon Broughton (6-6, 250) could push Hughes out of the starting lineup after a strong spring.
"Keep an eye on Braylon, he ran a 4.55 at almost 260 pounds this spring," Patterson said.
No player on either side of the football this spring received anywhere near the praise of junior Daryl Washington (6-3, 228). This guy can do it all, from blocking three punts last season to being able to cover more ground than a circus tent. NFL scouts already have him on the radar, and Patterson called him the team's best pass coverage defender. Not the best pass coverage defender among the linebackers. The best on the team. Patterson has also compared his raw athletic ability to Tomlinson.
He's so great that, come the season-opener at New Mexico, Washington will be on the sidelines for the TCU's first defensive play.
That's right, that's how loaded the linebackers are this season, and in Patterson's 4-2-5 format, there's only room for two starters.
"This is the best collection of linebackers I've ever had here," Patterson said. "And we've had some good ones in the past."
Two Mountain West offensive coordinators said this spring that senior middle linebacker Jason Phillips (6-1, 234) was simply the best defensive player in the conference. A veteran of 38 career starts entering this season, Phillips is a three-time All-MWC selection who led TCU with 87 tackles last year. He's on the watch list for every major award, including the Lombardi and Butkus honors, and some are predicting an All-American campaign. His other vitals in 2007 included 10.5 stops for loss, six pass breakups, two sacks and an interception that he returned 34 yards.
The other projected starter is senior Robert Henson (6-1, 228), who finished last year with 66 tackles while becoming the first TCU linebacker to return an interception for a touchdown since 1995, that via a 58-yard effort against SMU. He has 199 career tackles.
Not that there's a ton of playing time available at linebacker barring injury but others pushing for snaps include junior Chris Goodson (6-0, 210) and redshirt freshmen Tank Carder (6-2, 215) and Kris Gardner (6-1, 220).
The cornerback positions appear locked and loaded with juniors Rafael Priest (5-10, 163) and Nick Sanders (5-10, 174) each returning after having started all 26 games the last two seasons. Priest was a Mountain West honorable mention selection behind a team-high 13 passed defended, including 10 pass break-ups and three interceptions, while Sanders had 39 tackles and a pick in 2007.
"We're as fast as ever at cornerback," Patterson said. "Sanders lost weight for the spring -- he was heavy last fall -- and he looked good. And I think some of our newcomers are going to factor in here."
Specifically, Patterson is talking about JUCO Jason Teague (6-2, 190) of Tyler (Texas) Community College.
"He originally signed with LSU and he can fly; he might be our fastest player this season," Patterson said.
Also in the mix are sophomore Alex Ibiloye (6-0, 170) and redshirt freshman Greg McCoy (5-10, 172).
Look for Teague to push Sanders at the second corner and McCoy to snag the dime package snaps.
At safety, senior Stephen Hodge (6-0, 212) returns at strong. He recorded an incredible seven sacks in the team's final seven games, an unheard of amount for a safety, or any position not on the outside of the front. He was a second-team All-MWC selection behind 57 tackles, 10.5 for loss, eight sacks and seven pass breakups. All that and he started only the final five games. The projected starters at the team's other two starting safeties positions are senior Steven Coleman (6-3, 204) -- who started eight games last season and tied for the team lead with three picks -- at free, and sophomore Tejay Johnson at weak safety.
Redshirt freshmen Sir Demarco Bledsoe (6-2, 175) and Tekerrein Cuba (6-4, 197) should also vie for playing time.
After an impressive spring, redshirt freshman Anson Kelton (6-4, 260) struggled at the spring game but Patterson is confident in his abilities.
"He has a big-time leg and handles the ball well," Patterson said.
After the spring game Patterson told reporters, "He'll have to react better than he did today." Kelton has some impressive shoes to fill in the form of All-MWC punter Derek Wash, who averaged 42.5 yards per boot last season.
Patterson doesn't waver in his assessment of junior long snapper Clint Gresham (6-3, 225).
"He's the best snapper in the nation," Patterson said.
A transfer from Oklahoma, Gresham originally was a walk on before Patterson awarded him with a scholarship after last season.
Punt returner is yet another special teams position that needs replacing, as Brian Bonner graduated after a season in which he tallied 535 punt return yards. Only Heisman Trophy winner Davey O'Brien had more in a single-season with 549 in 1937. And yes, O'Brien was a quarterback.
Look for Kerley, the projected starting wideout, to return punts, while kick return duty will be shared by a trio of receivers in Massey, Young and Christian. Brown was the primary kick returner when healthy last season, but he's probably out of the mix because the team wants to take every precaution possible to keep him on the field at 100 percent. And no play in football carries a greater injury risk than kick returns.
The Frogs blocked four punts last season and have six in their last 17 games. Washington had three of those blocked punts in 2007.
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|Grading the Frogs|
<!-- INLINE TABLE (END) -->At the conclusion of his interview with Blue Ribbon in early June, Patterson had just one request.
"Please pick us last; we always play better when no one expects anything from us."
Sorry coach, this is a heck of a football team, one that is capable of winning the Mountain West Conference. The defense is so loaded it's hard to imagine any team outside of Oklahoma really moving up and down the field against it, and even the Sooners will have their hands full, as they did in 2005.
The reason TCU isn't favored to win the conference by every preseason publication is simply the situation under center. Even if Patterson just said, "Look, this is my guy, for better or worse," at least then the team would know who its leader is. The huddle can become a confusing place when two quarterbacks are looking over their shoulder after a bad pass.
Also, this isn't a team that's going to win 40-10 on the majority of nights. For a running game/defense-anchored team to win 10-11 games, at least two or three are going to come down to a play or two on special teams, a crucial punt pinning the opponent at the 2-yard line, a 48-yard field goal into the wind, or on the flip side, a botched long snap, a 12-yard punt at midfield.
And while it may come together beautifully, the special teams are at best unproven at the collegiate level and at worst, Patterson's worst nightmare.
Despite its flaws, there are too many strengths on this team for it not to make the MWC race interesting.