The Horned Frogs practice with a song in their heart. The tune depends on how the season is going.
In 2020, everything changed in the middle of the year because TCU was out of sync, out of step and writhing and tilting like Elaine from “Seinfeld” at an office party. Something had to be done. In an instant, the players’ playlist was out. The head coach’s was in.
“We weren’t playing very well,” Gary Patterson says. “So we went back to my soundtrack, just like we’ve always had it, and we won five out of six.”
Coaching is about finding an edge anywhere, and in the latter half of the COVID-challenged year, Patterson and the Frogs found theirs. Winning five of six to finish at 6–4, they led the Big 12 in rushing and were poised for a bowl game, their 17th in 20 seasons, until a bout of COVID-19 made them withdraw from the Texas Bowl against Arkansas.
“You judge your program by whether it’s competitive,” Patterson says. "And I think we’re competitive.”
True enough, but TCU is barely a .500 team over the last three seasons (18–17) after winning better than 75 percent of its games (40–13) and sharing a Big 12 title in the four years prior. Returning to a loftier winning percentage will hinge on how well the Horned Frogs take advantage of an experienced quarterback, use a quartet of high-end rushers and recalibrate a defense that lost three NFL prospects.
Previewing TCU’s Offense for 2021
Max Duggan enters his third year, finally as the undisputed starter. For the first time, the junior doesn’t have to win the job. He’s built a good case since 2019, first setting TCU freshman records for passing yards and touchdown throws and then leading the Horned Frogs in rushing as a sophomore. His ground exploits — an 81-yard TD run against Texas Tech in 2020 is the longest ever by a quarterback in program history — fit easily into TCU’s conference-leading ground game.
The signal-caller was one of four players last year with a 100-yard rushing day, including running backs Darwin Barlow, Zach Evans and Kendre Miller. Even though Barlow transferred, with Emari Demercado back as well, TCU can stake a claim to having the Big 12’s most potent three-pack of backs.
For catches, the Frogs will look primarily for seniors Taye Barber and Derius Davis. They’ll be deep downfield. “We can run on defense, but they’ve been a handful vertically to cover,” Patterson said of the pair during spring practice. Sophomore Quentin Johnston (22 catches) is another name to remember in '21.
On the offensive line, there are three returning starters, including right tackle Andrew Coker. Junior left tackle Obinna Eze transferred to TCU from Memphis with 25 starts under his belt. The top two tight ends from 2020 are gone.
Previewing TCU’s Defense for 2021
TCU’s three-year streak of leading the Big 12 in defense ended in 2020. A pass rush that generated only five sacks in the first four games bore some of the blame, although Ochaun Mathis’ three sacks against Texas Tech fueled a surge of 22 takedowns in the final six contests. The junior defensive end spearheads the Frogs’ front seven and is now their active leader in sacks and second in tackles following the departures of linebacker Garret Wallow and Trevon Moehrig, who paired with Ar’Darius Washington to form Pro Football Focus’ top-rated safeties against Power 5 opponents in 2020.
The Frogs got a boost when senior defensive tackle Corey Bethley returned rather than test the NFL waters with a four-game 2020 tape. Dee Winters plugs in again at linebacker following a 65-tackle season that included a scoop-six at Kansas.
The secondary includes Memphis transfer T.J. Carter, who intercepted seven passes at his former school, at safety and cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, whose 13 pass breakups in 2020 led the Big 12 and ranked second in the nation.
Previewing TCU’s Specialists for 2021
Everybody’s back. Griffin Kell, who made all four of his field goals in the win at Texas and closed the year making eight of his final 10, is the placekicker for a third consecutive year. Punter Jordy Sandy’s 41.0-yard average marked a nine-year high for TCU, and he’s downed 49 kicks inside the 20 in the past two seasons. Derius Davis ranked fifth in the nation with his punt return average of 14.5 yards, and he took one to the house at Kansas in 2020 to give him three in his career.
With 19 starts, Duggan gives TCU its most experienced quarterback since Trevone Boykin. The Council Bluffs, Iowa, product can rival any quarterback in the country for foot speed. His arm talent will determine whether TCU can find better balance.
With health on defense, the Horned Frogs think they can go right back to being one of the top units in the Big 12. Much rides on generating a pass rush and replacing their two takeaway artists at safety.
The Frogs’ 38 wins in the Big 12 over the past seven seasons are tied for the second most in the league in that stretch. Like everybody else, they’re a few steps behind Oklahoma. It’ll take a leap at QB and defense to close the gap, but some tools appear to be in place for Patterson to build a jumping-off point.
National Ranking: 25
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(Max Duggan photo courtesy of gofrogs.com)