Since going 11-3 and finishing the season in the top 10 of the polls in 2017, TCU has taken a step back on the field. The Horned Frogs dropped to 7-6 in 2018 but still made (and won) a bowl game. That was not the case last season, however, as Gary Patterson's team went 5-7, his worst finish since going 4-8 in 2013.
Part of the reason for TCU's losing record last season can be attributed to an inconsistent offense (especially in Big 12 play) as well as a defense that couldn't get to the quarterback and struggled mightily against teams once they got inside the red zone.
Patterson's offensive coaching staff will look a little different this year. Besides shuffling a few assistants around, three new coaches were brought on, although one of them is well known to Horned Frog fans. Former co-offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach (2014-16) Doug Meacham is back. Meacham originally left TCU to become Kansas' OC/quarterbacks coach before he was fired midway through the 2018 season. He was hired last summer to be the OC for the XFL's St. Louis BattleHawks but resigned in January to return to TCU as inside receivers/tight ends coach.
The other new staff members are running backs coach Bryan Applewhite (previously at Colorado State) and Jerry Kill, who will serve as special assistant to the head coach. Kill, who went 152-99 as a head coach, including stops at Minnesota and Northern Illinois, served in a similar capacity at Virginia Tech last season. After stepping down at Minnesota in October 2015 due to health problems, Kill remained involved in the game and eventually resurfaced as Rutgers' OC/QB coach in 2017. He reportedly will serve as an off-field assistant who will oversee the offense for Patterson, a longtime friend.
So with TCU looking to get back to its winning ways, here are some things to keep an eye as the Horned Frogs begin spring practice on Friday.
5 Storylines to Watch During TCU's Spring Practice
1. Duggan's development
TCU finished ninth in the Big 12 and 90th nationally in passing offense in 2019, averaging 203.7 yards per game with a total of 15 touchdowns through the air. That's the bad news. The good news is that those growing pains could produce better results this season if Max Duggan takes a step forward after gaining valuable starting experience as a true freshman.
Duggan seized the starting job in the second game and didn't look back, finishing with 2,077 passing yards, 15 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. He also added 555 yards and six scores on the ground. He needs to cut down on his interceptions and improve his accuracy (53.4 percent) but Patterson obviously likes what he sees in the former four-star recruit who was the Iowa Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior at Lewis Central High School in Council Bluffs.
Duggan will get plenty of reps this spring as he will be the only healthy scholarship quarterback taking part in practice. Patterson announced earlier in February that Matthew Baldwin and Matthew Downing are both dealing with injuries and will be held out as a precaution. Grant Beucler, Jake Neufeld, and Logan Burnett are expected to take part in practice but the focus will be on Duggan.
2. Replacing Reagor
One of the things Duggan will need to work on this spring is finding a new favorite target following Jalen Reagor's early departure for the NFL. While Reagor's numbers from last season may not jump off of the page, he was TCU's leading receiver (43 rec., 611 yds., 5 TDs) and returned two punts for touchdowns. After Reagor, the top pass catcher was Taye Barber (29 rec., 372 yds.). The fact that the only other Horned Frog with multiple TD catches was tight end Pro Wells (five) only emphasizes the need for TCU's passing game to improve.
Besides Barber, fellow juniors Te'Vailance Hunt (15.4 ypr, TD in 2019) and Darius Davis (13.7 ypr) could assume bigger roles starting this spring and another player to watch is incoming freshman Quentin Johnson. An early enrollee, Johnson is the gem of this year's recruiting class, a lanky (6-4, 180) four-star prospect from Louisiana.
3. Corner market
One of the hallmarks of Patterson's teams is his unique 4-2-5 defensive alignment. With five defensive backs on the field at all times, Patterson needs solid cornerbacks he can rely on, especially when it comes to matching up against some of the Big 12's pass-happy offenses.
Cornerback will be one of the key positions to watch this spring following the graduation of Jeff Gladney and Julius Lewis. Kee'Yon Stewart, who made six starts last season, has to be considered a front-runner for one of the jobs and junior Noah Daniels, who was projected to be a starter entering last season, is back after missing all of 2019 with an injury. Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, who made one start last season, is another candidate.
4. Revamping the running game
Reagor is not the only big offensive weapon Patterson has to replace this spring. Running backs Darius Anderson and Sewo Olonilua are both gone after combining for 1,360 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns last season. As a team, TCU was 29th nationally in rushing at 204 yards per game but more than half of that production is gone now as Max Duggan is the only player returning who had more than 99 rushing yards last season.
The Horned Frogs will likely employ a committee approach in the backfield come fall but those to watch in the spring include Darwin Barlow, Daimarqua Foster, and Emari Demercado. Another concern for Patterson is his offensive line. Center Coy McMillon is the only full-time starter returning up front with Austin Myers and Quazzel White the only others back who started a game last season.
5. Putting together a pass rush
After tying for 25th nationally in sacks in 2018, TCU plummeted to a tie for 92nd in the category last season. Additionally, seven players who combined for 7.5 of the team's 22 sacks are no longer on the roster. When your leading returning sacker is a linebacker (Garret Wallow, 3.5), something needs to change.
The good news for Patterson is that he should have plenty of bodies along the defensive line to work with this spring in hopes of finding the right combination. While sophomore defensive end Ochaun Mathis, who tied for third on the team with 2.5 sacks, will be sidelined after undergoing offseason surgery, senior Brandon Bowen and redshirt freshman Thomas Armstrong will be both take part after missing all of last season due to injuries.
Elsewhere on the roster, the hope is that senior Corey Bethley or junior Terrell Cooper can take another step forward in their development and, alongside Mathis, serve as anchors up front. Bethley, who started every game, and Cooper combined for 4.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for a loss in 2019.