By Jackson Leuschen, CycloneFanatic.com Contributor
After several years as the top team in the Mountain West conference, the TCU Horned Frogs are one of two new schools the Big 12 will welcome to the conference this season. TCU exits the MWC as the three-time defending conference champions.
Entering last season, there was a lot of pressure on quarterback Casey Pachall. The previous four years, the team’s starting quarterback had been Andy Dalton and with him at the reigns, the team went 42-8. Pachall (6-foot-5, 215 pounds) handled the pressure beautifully, setting single-season school records by completing 66 percent of his passes for 2,921 yards with a passing efficiency of 157.98 (11thin the country). He led the team to an 11-2 record and threw 25 touchdowns with only seven interceptions.
Matthew Tucker, Ed Wesley, and Waymon James make up the three-headed monster that is TCU’s backfield. Tucker has been the starter and is more of a power runner than the other two and despite averaging 5.7 yards per carry and leading the group in carries, he actually was third on the team in rushing yards. Wesley was even more efficient, gaining 6.1 yards per attempt, although he did miss three games with injuries. Wesley was also a Doak Walker Award semifinalist (nation’s top RB) in 2010. James led the team with an unheard of 7.2 yards per carry average for 875 yards and is also a dangerous kick returner, taking one back for a score last fall. The three combined for over 2,300 yards and 24 touchdowns and TCU is the country’s only school returning three guys who put up over 700 yards on the ground last season. Finally, perhaps the best feature of the group is they’re always getting positive yardage – they only lost 34 yards all season.
Three of the team’s top four receivers are back. Josh Boyce was Pachall’s favorite target in 2011, racking up 998 yards receiving with an impressive 16.4 yards per catch and nine touchdowns. In just two seasons in Fort Worth, Boyce has already racked up 15 scoring grabs, three shy of the school record he is likely to destroy. Skye Dawson and Brandon Carter combined for just over 850 yards and eight touchdowns. Dawson, the Offensive MVP of the 2011 Poinsettia Bowl, has tremendous speed as he was also a MWC indoor champ in the 60-meter dash and posted a 10.29 100-meter dash while on the track team. Three second year players, David Porter, Cam White and LaDarius Brown, will be looking to make a big splash as their playing time expands. Corey Fuller is the most established tight end on the roster and he’ll open the year as the starter. Fuller has two career catches. Talented sophomore Stephen Bryant will push him for playing time.
Now obviously the incredible amount of production put up by the TCU offense is all established by great line play. The two returning starters up front are interior guys and they will be two of the conference’s best. James Fry is a Rimington Award watch list player, the award given annually to the nation’s top center, while Blaize Foltz has started 15 games at right guard and is one of the strongest players in the country. The new starters are all huge underclassmen. James Dunbar (6-6, 305) will step in at left tackle to protect Pachall’s blind side; Tayo Fabuluje (6-7, 315), a BYU transfer, will protect his other flank; John Wooldridge (6-5, 310) looks like a prototypical overpowering guard.
The calling card of Gary Patterson’s TCU teams has been suffocating defense. They’re masters of the unique 4-2-5 defense and have consistently been one of the top defenses in the country for several years in a row.
The defensive line is a group with plenty of experience. Stansly Maponga, a junior, has already started 25 games at defensive end. Maponga was a nightmare for offensive coordinators last year as he put up 13.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks and forced five fumbles. Maponga will be a strong candidate for All-American honors this season. At the other end is Ross Forrest, who has nine career starts. Chuck Hunter, a 305 pound sophomore, passed junior Ray Burns for the starting nose tackle spot this spring. David Johnson was a freshman All-American last year as he totaled seven tackles for loss from his defensive tackle position.
Sam linebacker Kenny Cain, who has great mobility at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, returns as the Horned Frogs’ leading tackler. Sophomore Deryck Gildon is much thicker at 235 pounds and will start at middle linebacker. Gildon is also an excellent special teams player who blocked two punts a year ago, showcasing a nice burst of speed on the way. Joel Hasley and Danny Heiss will be the primary backups.
The cornerbacks have some decent experience for being a young group. Jason Verrett’s junior season will be his second as a starter, while Kevin White made three starts as a freshman last fall. Verrett intercepted one pass and broke up four others. Junior Keivon Gamble and good-sized redshirt freshmen Travoskey Garrett (6-foot-1) and Kolby Griffin (5-foot-11) are unproven but talented backups.
The biggest apparent weakness of the Horned Frogs’ defense will be its back line of three inexperienced safeties. Two sophomores, Sam Carter and Jonathan Anderson, will be new starters. Both players have impressive size for the position, and Anderson showed a nose for the ball in making 49 tackles as a freshman. At free safety, Elisha Olabode beat out redshirt freshman Chris Hackett for the starting job. Olabode, a converted corner, has great range which makes him a huge asset in the deep middle third of the defense.
It should be noted that TCU has had a first-team all-MWC return specialist for each of the past seven years. James was that guy last season and as previously mentioned, he and Dawson will handle kickoff returns while Wesley (10.9 average) and Carter (13.7) will bring back punts. Senior Cale Patterson will handle both the punting and placekicking duties this fall, his first as a starter at either spot.
Gary Patterson established TCU as a juggernaut in the MWC and it will be exciting to see how they transition to a more competitive BCS conference. It’s hard to count out a team that’s been so consistent over the past half-decade. They’ve won 11 games in seven of the last nine years and capped an unbeaten 2010-11 season with a 21-19 Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin and a No. 2 ranking nationally. Although they’re conference switch and only returning a combined 11 starters on offense and defense, TCU’s success should not be overlooked as they will enter the Big 12 as a force from year one.