Big 12 spring check-ins: TCU

Ian Boyd

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Last year was looking like a really tough one for the Frogs at various points, maybe most of all when Max Duggan was diagnosed with a heart condition which required a procedure early in fall camp. It proved to be a very correctable issue, but he still missed on a lot of fall camp reps and then the first half against Iowa State in a game that might have been (not definitely) competitive had he played instead of walk-on quarterback Matthew Downing.

I really thought there for a spell Gary Patterson was just going to retire. However, the Frogs managed to get bowl practices in (before bailing on their game with Arkansas), bring in some transfers, and shore up the coaching staff. Perhaps more importantly, this roster looks very different in 2021 than in 2010 after you piece together the two-deep with healthy returnees and project some reasonable growth for returning players.

Consider this. The TCU Horned Frogs have not gone into a season with an experienced, upperclassman quarterback and an established weapon at receiver but three times this whole dang decade. Maybe four times if you count a struggling Casey Pachall and wide receiver Brandon Carter in 2013, which didn't pan out. Those occurrences were in 2014, 2015, and 2017

In 2014 the Frogs returned Trevone Boykin, who hadn't shown a ton but had played as a freshman and sophomore earlier than expected due to Pachall's issues, and plugged him into the Air Raid alongside promising junior wideout Josh Doctson. Magic happened and the Frogs went 12-1 a year after going 4-8.

In 2015 they brought both Boykin and Doctson back, along with two NFL offensive linemen after losing one to the NFL after 2014. They took a step back on defense but still went 11-2.

Then in 2017 they brought back Kenny Hill all the wiser for a tough 2016 season and went 11-3 with a pair of losses to the Oklahoma Sooners. That unit hardly even had an established weapon at wideout although they did have a freshman Jalen Reagor.

In 2016 they were breaking in Hill after a transfer, in 2018 they were trying to initiate the Shawn Robinson era but injuries spoiled the party. In 2019 they had to use Alex Delton to buy Max Duggan time to learn the offense, in 2020 they brought back Duggan and he had a solid season despite missing both spring and fall camp.

For 2021 the Frogs will have a junior Max Duggan with a much firmer grasp of the offense and some scheme tailored to his skill set, he'll have freshman phenom Quentin Johnston as his planned no. 1 target to work with all offseason, and things will hinge on whether the offensive line can be solid and how well Gary Patterson can piece together another good 4-2-5 defense. Who's betting against em?

Infrastructure stress test: Offense

TCU has had some struggles with offensive infrastructure recently, this is where they've been falling short as a program for the last several seasons. Beyond the issues at quarterback, they've had inconsistent vision and usage for the tight end position, struggled in overall pass protection, and haven't been able to match the good 2017 formula of pairing 6-6, 300 pound Austin Schlottmann with 6-7, 338 pound Matt Pryor on the right side opposite 3rd round pick left tackle Joseph Noteboom.

The chemistry of those big boys on the right side in their zone running game was huge for the Frogs and they ran the ball really well with Kyle Hicks and Darius Anderson combining for 267 carries, 1405 yards, 5.3 ypc, and 12 touchdowns while Sewo Olonilua finished their drives with another seven scores. As a committee they built a pretty respectable run game which paired nicely with one of their better post 2014 defenses.

Last season TCU had to shuffle their pieces a ton across the offensive line and used several different lineups, but this season they stand to benefit as a result of working in so many players, getting some evaluations, and now returning all of them. The centerpiece is center Esteban Avila, seen here destroying Oklahoma State's 3-technique on the goal line and roaring in triumph.


Avila is 6-4, 330 pounds and a legitimate athlete. If you look at some of the historically good running teams in college football, you'll find they often excel at center, particularly if they are zone-based. The lineage of Alabama centers in the Nick Saban era is incredible and includes three Rimington winners. TCU similarly has Joey Hunt, Austin Schlottmann, and Patrick Morris in the middle of their better units, now Avila.

To his right or left we'll probably see some combination of John Lanz, Blake Hickey, and Wes Harris, all of whom are reasonably experiences at this point in their careers. Then outside at right tackle they can give Andrew Coker another go or try out fellow redshirt sophomore Brandon Coleman. On the flank, ancillary Carter Ware returns after a strong season blocking.

Max Duggan is the other centerpiece, the now junior threw for 1795 yards at 7.5 ypa last year with 10 touchdowns to four interceptions, not bad particularly considering the relative shape of their dropback passing game and the lack of emphasis on star freshman Quentin Johnston. They also worked out some fantastic zone/power-read game tricks after consulting with RichRod, godfather of the spread-option run game. Before removing sack yardage, Duggan's run game totals added up to 116 carries for 526 yards at 4.5 ypc with 10 touchdowns.

Remove the sack yardage and he had 97 carries for 652 yards at 6.7 ypc. More on that in the space force section, but suffice to say Duggan is a talented and explosive runner in the option game. He's probably the best running quarterback in the Big 12, particularly with Will Howard and Caleb Williams as back-ups at their respective schools.

Then the Frogs have weapons in the slot with Taye Barber and J.D. Spielman back, some solid receiving tight ends if they can find the time this offseason to install a half decent dropback game, and then too many running backs. Zach Evans is the one who has the fans excited as a former 5-star, he's certainly explosive but also has a tendency to just try and run behind his biggest offensive lineman. I'd name their other guys but there's like four of them who could probably break 1,000 yards if they got enough carries and proved durable enough. Suffice to say, the spread run game should be very effective, they have a lot of pieces.

Just by nailing their spread run game down and properly emphasizing their epxlosinvess outside on RPOs and play-action this offense should take another leap forward. If they can get their dropback game up to a league average level, they'll be cooking with gas.

Infrastructure stress test: Defense

The Frogs were pretty overrated up the middle of their defense last season. Corey Bethley missed some games, 6-2, 285 pound Terrell Cooper had to play some in the nose and got blasted, the more promising young defensive tackles were stuck behind some much weaker ones such as Soni Misi, and linebacker Garrett Wallow was frankly a bit over-stressed.

Watch his film and you'll find Wallow trying to two-gap A LOT, especially against insert and gap schemes. He'd hold his original gap and try and wait until the last moment to scrape over to the new gap created by the offense pulling a lineman or inserting a tight end. This went terribly because his defensive tackles wouldn't hold the point and he'd get caught in the wash when he tried to scrape over late. He was an athletic player who could make a lot of plays with quickness but his reactions and processing weren't particularly special.

Dee Winters is back after playing well beside him, then it's just a matter of Gary Patterson getting one of the other young athletes he's been stockpiling to make decisive and accurate fills against the run at the other linebacker position. You want to bet against him doing so?

Safety is where people anticipate TCU being in trouble because Trevon Moehrig and Ar'Darius Washington are likely to be drafted in the coming days. My counter is this, when's the last time TCU had bad safety play? You think the Frogs haven't had to replace a pair of well regarded safeties before?

Patterson's heavy emphasis on MEG quarters (man coverage by the cornerbacks, safeties can sit on the hashes and be deployed in multiple spots) tends to make heroes of his safeties. TCU returns Lakendrick Van Zandt, who was solid at strong safety before being replaced by the impressive Nook Bradford, they bring back Bradford, and then they have the next generation behind them lead by junior Josh Foster and supplemented by Memphis transfer T.J. Carter who's been converted into a free safety from cornerback.

They had bowl practices and will get spring and fall to work this out, there are plenty of options, and the scheme is quietly friendly to the safety position. Normally, defensive tackle, linebacker, and safety is a revolving door at TCU. Those positions are mostly about development and when TCU has an offseason to develop, they do so.

Space force speed test: Offense

The Frogs had a much better hand here last season than they were able to play. It took a while for T.J. Storment to find his way into the starting lineup for some reason while former bluechip Austin Myers continued to struggle to make good on his ability. When he did hit the lineup, the Frogs saw an immediate boost in their ability to throw the ball down the field and simply to avoid all the pressure and negative plays which doomed them earlier in the season.

He's gone now, of course, but he's gone because they traded Myers to Memphis for Obinna Eze, a 6-8, 315 pound former bluechip with a few years of AAC left tackle play under his belt. Eze is not an amazing run blocker, he's long and moves well but he doesn't get very low and defensive linemen can get under his pads in the run game. Imagine an effective drop coverage center defending the pick'n'roll and you have a decent idea of how Eze looks protecting the quarterback. I think he'll be tougher to get around than Storment and this was clearly the wager TCU was making, how good they can get him in the zone running game will be an interesting subplot to the season.

At any rate, they should be in much better shape throwing the ball and preventing as many sacks.

This is good, because Quentin Johnston might be one of the best receivers in the Big 12 next season. At 6-4 and 193 pounds he's a size matchup on the perimeter and he moves very fluidly for a tall guy and will go up and get the ball over the middle with safeties bearing down. They connected to him on a few go routes and jump balls last season, he could be deadly in a more intentional RPO/play-action system oriented around his strengths and a full offseason of Duggan nailing his timing throwing it up.

So the Frogs are in pretty good shape here.

Space force speed test: Defense

Playing 4-down defense in the Big 12 is a bit of a gamble because of the 4-down, RPO math problem.

The 4-down RPO math problem.jpg

RPO/play-action offense was designed to attack quarters defense like TCU famously plays under Gary Patterson. It's impossible to get a +1 against the twin receivers, six-man offensive front (five linemen and an ancillary), and backside receiver all at the same time. Someone has to hold up in isolation.

Gary tends to play things off a bit, drop the safeties back, muddy the waters with his box, and then get a safety coming late from strong safety (nickel) or weak safety (boundary safety). The simpler solution is to play 3-down so you can easily mix in drop eight coverages or make it less clear who all is dropping and where when you only drop six or seven. If you're playing with 4-down, you need those four down linemen to be having a real impact on the game to justify not having another off-ball player to bring more flexibility.

Patterson has a 3-down defense...but it subs out a defensive tackle and not a defensive end. Imo, he should have used his 3-2-6 much more extensively last season, instead he only uses it against heavy passing Air Raid teams or against OU after spotting them a two-three touchdown lead. At any rate, without really good defensive ends, nothing in Patterson's defense works terribly well.

Similarly, when it comes time to decide who's going to hold up 1-on-1 in coverage, Patterson is generally looking for it to be the cornerbacks.

Patterson's 4-2-5 creates the impression of being a swarming defense which outnumbers and suffocates offensive tendency, but like anyone else he needs special athletes in the space force units of edge and cornerback so they don't get beat 1-on-1 in high stakes battles in space.

But, the 2021 TCU Frogs have an exceptional-looking space force. Khari Coleman and Ochaun Mathis are the real deal at end and combined for 27.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks last season while Coleman was a true freshman playing at like 6-1, 215 or something ridiculous. They're back now and the Frogs have more depth behind them with Colt Ellison back. Tre'vius Hodges-Tomlinson was a revelation in his first year as a starting cornerback a year ago, erasing the wide side receiver in man coverage in multiple games and boundary corner Noah Daniels has been consistently good when healthy. If Daniels can't stay healthy, Hidari Ceasar could be a step down but not incompetent and then they have some younger guys to try and get up to speed. THT is going to be very effective.

In summation

When TCU is good, there's a certain formula which tends to play out for their team. They are often good at the space force spots because Patterson, while viewed as an overachiever, actually recruits well relative to everyone else in the Big 12 save for Texas and Oklahoma. They have athletes this year, as they often do, and it so happens they have them at all the crucial space force positions.

The infrastructure looks better than it has in years as well. Max Duggan finally brings stability and knowhow to quarterback, Esteban Avila anchors an experienced offensive line, defensive tackle is healthier, and linebacker and safety simply need to reload with full-looking magazines of ammo.

There aren't major holes in TCU's team and lots of impressive looking strong spots. I'm expecting a leap for the team who went 5-4 last year in Big 12 play to finish no. 2 in 2021 and play in the Big 12 Championship Game for the second time.
 
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bHero

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There aren't major holes in TCU's team and lots of impressive looking strong spots. I'm expecting a leap for the team who went 5-4 last year in Big 12 play to finish no. 2 in 2021 and play in the Big 12 Championship Game for the second time.
This is what I was afraid of with them. Achieving consistency on the line and at QB will be bad new for us all.
 
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cord32

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Their early season matchups with Cal and SMU should be very interesting. They are going to be favored in both i would think. My BIL and his alum buddies are optimistic. I still question Duggan as more than a 4th place qb but we'll see.