Will TCU's defensive line rebound in 2021?

Ian Boyd

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
Staff member
Jan 14, 2014
Ypsilanti, MI
Gary Patterson is well known for his 4-2-5 defense. His flexibility with the scheme over the years has been notable, as well as his knack for scouting opponents and instilling a high level of awareness for an offenses’ favorite formations and concepts into his players. Another trademark characteristic of the unit is their consistent excellence at linebacker and safety.

It’s usually pretty silly to expect the Frogs to struggle at either of those two positions. Even when they appear heavily flawed for a spell at linebacker, like early in the 2015 season, Patterson will do something like moving 195 pound safety Travin Howard to middle linebacker and patch everything up.

Where things get trickier for the Frogs is the defensive line, particularly defensive end but occasionally tackle as well. The defense really takes off when they have an impact player on the edge, the nature of 4-down defense is such that if you aren’t getting a big impact from the 4-down linemen it’s often not worth playing it over a 3-down scheme which puts more off-ball defenders and speed on the field.

However, while Patterson has a very effective 3-down package he unquestionably underutilized in 2020, his comfort zone is basing from the 4-2-5. Last season the Frogs worked out some solutions for rebuilding their line but were ultimately crushed in some big games due to holes in the lineup. Interestingly, some of their biggest issues didn’t occur outside at end but inside at defensive tackle.

Patterson’s defensive line-building approach

It’s not often issues at defensive tackle get in the way of a Frog defense. Patterson’s scheme is heavy on slants and stunts with the line designed to thwart offensive line assignments and schemes and even when they’re executing base techniques they tend to move laterally and engage guards with an eye for tying down blockers and sitting in gaps while the linebackers and safeties make plays.

The two best TCU defenses I’ve seen since they joined the Big 12 were the 2014 and 2017 units. In 2014 the Frog D-line went:

James McFarland: 6-3, 248. 3*** recruit from LA
Chucky Hunter: 6-0, 300. 3*** recruit from LA
Davion Pierson: 6-2, 305. 3*** recruit from OK
Mike Tuaua: 6-3, 250. 2** recruit from CA

McFarland was the main pass-rusher with seven sacks while Pierson and Hunter both did some damage inside. They also had a lot of depth with Terrell Lathan and Josh Carraway coming off the bench. Nose tackle Chucky Hunter was 2nd team All-Big 12 and five of the seven backfield defenders were on the 1st or 2nd team defense.

Here was the 2017 unit:

Mat Boesen: 6-4, 235. 3*** recruit from CA JUCO
Ross Blacklock: 6-4, 320. 4**** recruit from HOU
Corey Bethley: 6-1, 302. 4**** from HOU
Ben Banogu: 6-4, 240. 2** from DFW/ULM transfer

Banogu and Boesen were both named 1st team All-B12 but Boesen had a four-sack game against lowly Baylor and Blacklock and Bethley were a revelation inside. The following year they had to make do without Blacklock or Boesen, the former was replaced by a committed and Bethley playing more nose while Boesen was replaced by L.J. Collier, who was then drafted. They ended up with another strong unit, in large part because Bethley and Banogu were such an effective combo.

The challenge is fielding impact players across the front without the benefit of high level recruiting, although their defensive tackle recruiting has picked up with a few 4-stars mixed in. But defensive end is where Patterson has historically needed to work magic in order to find high level players.

In the last few years, here are some of the players Patterson has brought in to try and solve for the need to man his “space force” on edges of his front.

Dennis Collins: 6-2, 248. 3*** from LA.
Michael Epley: 6-3, 255. 3*** from Texas JUCO

I never heard a word about either of these players at TCU.

Adam Plant: 6-5, 250. 3*** from NV
Ochaun Mathis: 6-5, 235. 3*** from CTX

Plant needed another year of prep school to get in to TCU and then promptly transferred out. Ochaun Mathis redshirted and finally exploded in 2020 with eight sacks.

Colt Ellison: 6-4, 235. 3*** from DFW
Parker Workman: 6-2, 240. 3*** from UT JUCO
Thomas Armstrong: 6-3, 225. 3*** from FL
Shameik Blackshear: 6-5, 270. 4**** from SC/SC transfer

Ellison has flashed some potential but missed most of 2020, Workman has been little better than a back-up. Armstrong has been buried on the depth chart and Blackshear gave it a go in 2019, was not helpful, and left.

Khari Coleman: 6-1, 217. 3*** from LA
Marcel Brooks: 6-2, 200. 5***** from DFW/LSU transfer
Mark Jackson Jr: 6-1, 233. 4**** from STX/OU transfer
Dylan Horton: 6-4, 204. 3*** from DFW/New Mexico transfer

Patterson and his staff really pulled out all the stops in this class. Horton was a safety at New Mexico who’s now bulked up to about 240. Brooks gave it a go at linebacker and the edge and is now wearing no. 0 and working out for the Frogs at wide receiver. Mark Jackson was as helpful for TCU in 2020 as he’d been for OU previously, which is to say not very helpful, and is now gone.

Amazingly, explosive little Khari Coleman ended up winning the right defensive end job in 2020 and had 15 tackles for loss and three sacks.

Chris Murray: 6-3, 240. 3*** from NTX
Landyn Watson: 6-3, 235. 3*** from CTX

The Frogs have gone back to adding high schoolers with this group and the reason is the influx of players in the groups above finally solved the problem of needing athleticism at the defensive end positions.

Patterson has always been creative at trying to find athletes to play defensive end. Jerry Hughes was famously a 205 pound running back the staff approached about spinning down to end. I actually think TCU’s struggle to find a star defensive end from 2016 to 2019 when Banogu wasn’t around related to Sewo Olonilua’s decision to stay at running back.

What’s worked for them heading into 2021 is actually not their infusion of transfers but striking gold on a pair of high school recruits. Ochaun Mathis, whom they arrived early on and held off the Oklahoma schools for, and then recently Khari Coleman whom TCU poached late in the game from the Kansas Jayhawks.

They’re also two very different players. Mathis was a big, athletic, raw athlete who redshirted his first season at TCU and started to put things together in 2020 as a redshirt sophomore. Coleman was obviously a star edge player in high school but at something like 6-1, 210 and he overcame the size issues as a true freshman for the Frogs just as he’d done at the high school level.

Problem areas in 2020

Coleman and Mathis ended up stabilizing defensive end for the Frogs in 2020 and each has multiple seasons of eligibility remaining. Coleman is a likely four-year starter in the mold of Oklahoma outside linebacker Eric Striker because of his lack of size, which if anything is a huge boost to the Frogs. Ochaun Mathis may only give TCU one more season before his 6-5, 250 pound frame and growing pass-rushing skill sees him drafted.

Either way, TCU is in good shape at this difficult spot in 2021 and have time to develop their younger prospects or see if Dylan Horton’s transition will make him the next creative solution on the edge.

What really hurt TCU last season was actually defensive tackle.

They’d been cruising along in 2018 and 2019 with a really nice combination in the defensive front of big nose tackle Ross Blacklock paired with Bethley. For 2020 they expected to do well again with veteran Terrell Cooper at tackle and Bethley sliding to nose while they backed them up with Garrett Wallow, another converted safety named Dee Winter, and then the highly praised safety tandem of Trevon Moehrig and Ar’Darius Washington.

All that returning talent and knowhow made it surprising when the Frogs were torched most of the year in run defense. Six of TCU’s nine conference opponents had runs of 30 yards or longer, the exceptions were Texas Tech and the Oklahoma schools. The Oklahoma schools (and many others) also dropped some big gains in the passing game on TCU’s head even if they weren’t gashing them with runs.

Here’s a sampling of the bigger beats TCU had in run defense:

Iowa State had three long scoring runs against the Frogs in week one, this was the worst of them. The Frogs had senior Soni Misi as the nose guard here and is unable to either command a double team or really maintain the point of attack. The guard takes him on a ride laterally, opening a massive hole the tight end leads through.

There’s a similar effect here. Both tackles are accounted for with single blocks by the guards and Terrell Cooper as the nose gets taken on a ride by the left guard while the center is freed up to go hunt one of their smaller linebackers and drive him out of the lane.

Once again, a lead insert. Texas actually commits a double team for a moment on the nose (Terrell Cooper again) but drive him about five yards off the ball before the running back flies by him and release the center who’s unable to find anyone to block (Dee Winter tried to run under the blocks and came up empty). Soni Misi tries to get there laterally against a single team from the left guard but is controlled well enough to allow for a successful play.

TCU’s linebackers are regularly converted safeties. They had senior Wallow at one position last year, weighing in somewhere south of 230, and then 6-1, 220 pound Dee Winters at the other spot. These guys aren’t built like 3-4 inside pluggers, they’re not suited to playing 3-on-3 in the A-gaps with the center and guards. TCU’s defensive tackles need to be either holding down those three interior linemen so the Frog backers can flow to the ball or else shooting gaps hard enough to force the ballcarrier into predictable cutback lanes so the backers can meet them there.

Soni Misi was not particularly helpful in either role. At 6-2, 300 he was a squatty player who lacked the quickness to shoot gaps but didn’t hold up super well against double teams either. Terrell Cooper, at 6-2, 285, is dangerous shooting gaps but poorly suited to holding up as a nose. Corey Bethley was a better fit for the nose but only played in four games, one of those games was against Oklahoma where the Frogs held the Sooner backs to 4.9 ypc (mostly due to a pair of late 20-yard runs).

Without Bethley in the lineup regularly and future tackles Patrick Jenkins (another Cooper type), Jaquaze Sorrels (next Ross Blacklock?) yet to earn major snaps yet, the Frogs couldn’t consistently execute either their gap-exchanging tactics with effective movement nor a traditional approach with a powerful nose.

But in 2021 the Frogs will have Bethley back at the nose, Cooper restored to his more natural position as a 3-technique, Jenkins and Sorrells getting into the mix, and then UCF transfer Kenny Turnier who may steal the 3-technique job from Cooper. Between Sorrells (now 6-3, 322) coming off a redshirt and the return of Corey Bethley the Frogs will be deeper and have more answers for defending the A-gaps.

Defending the middle of the field then comes down to how well Patterson can raise up the next generation of Frog linebackers and safeties in an offseason which included bowl practices and then a much more typical spring and summer program.

Meanwhile the perimeter is in better shape than it’s been in some time with Mathis and Coleman growing into the edge roles while Noah Daniels and Tre’vius Hodges-Tomlinson return at cornerback. Gary Patterson appears to be all in for at least one more season in Fort Worth and it’s easy to see why.