After a 12-1 record in 2014 and a No. 3 finish in the final Associated Press poll, TCU opened 2015 as one of the favorites to claim a spot in the College Football Playoff. But the Horned Frogs hit a few speed bumps along the way, as injuries and overall roster turnover was just too much to overcome. Despite significant injuries on both sides of the ball, TCU finished 11-2 and finished No. 7 in the Associated Press rankings. High expectations always surround the Horned Frogs under coach Gary Patterson, but the 2016 version is not projected among the favorites to win the national title with question marks on both sides of the ball. However, TCU will have plenty to say about how the top of the Big 12 shakes out in 2016, and this team won’t be an easy out for the league’s top teams.
5 Storylines to Watch in TCU’s Spring Practice
1. Finding QB Trevone Boykin’s Replacement
Trevone Boykin’s prolific career in Fort Worth didn’t end in ideal fashion with a suspension for the Alamo Bowl. Regardless of how Boykin’s career ended, there’s no denying he was one of college football’s top quarterbacks over the last two years. While Boykin leaves big shoes to fill, coordinator Doug Meacham is one of the best in the nation and Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill is eligible after sitting out 2015 due to NCAA rules. Hill threw for 2,649 yards and 23 scores with the Aggies in 2014 and should be a good fit for TCU’s offense. He is the favorite to replace Boykin, with Foster Sawyer and Grayson Muehlstein looking to push for time.
2. New Faces on the Offensive Line
It’s no secret most of the offseason attention in Fort Worth is focused on Kenny Hill and his quest to replace Trevone Boykin. However, the bigger question mark for TCU might be its offensive line. Four seniors – Jamelle Naff, Joey Hunt, Brady Foltz and Hala Vaitai – expired their eligibility after the Alamo Bowl. Joseph Noteboom started all 13 games last season and could shift from the right to the left side to protect Hill’s blindside. Aviante Collins is another option at the tackle spots, and there’s experience returning on the interior with Austin Schlottman (four starts last year). Matt Pryor was listed as the backup at right tackle in 2015 but started the final three games at right guard. Junior college transfer Chris Gaynor and redshirt freshman Sam Awolope are names to watch in offseason workouts.
3. Shuffling the Skill Positions
TCU loses three of its top skill players from last season’s high-powered offense. Receivers Josh Doctson and Kolby Listenbee combined for 109 of the team’s 326 catches last season and expired their eligibility after the Alamo Bowl. KaVontae Turpin, Jarrison Stewart, Desmon White and Emanuel Porter are the top returnees at receiver, but Ty Slanina and Deante Gray return from injury to add reinforcements. There’s plenty of talent here, and the addition of junior college receivers Taj Williams and Ryan Parker certainly doesn’t hurt. How quickly will the options at this position settle into their new roles? Aaron Green expired his eligibility at running back, leaving Trevorris Johnson, Kyle Hicks and Shaun Nixon as the most-experienced options. Incoming freshman Sewo Olonilua is another name to watch in the backfield. Will a clear starter emerge? Or will TCU use a committee approach next season?
4. New Faces in the Secondary
TCU’s defense was hit hard by injuries last season, which included season-ending injuries to defensive backs Kenny Iloka (safety) and Ranthony Texada (cornerback). The bad news for the secondary continued into the spring, as Julius Lewis (18 tackles, 4 PBU) suffered an injury and is expected to miss the 2016 season. Iloka and Texada should be at full strength by the fall, and this unit also returns proven options in Nick Orr, Ridwan Issahaku, Denzel Johnson and DeShawn Raymond. Junior college prospect Markell Simmons was also a key pickup on the recruiting trail for next season. With the return of Texada and Iloka, the secondary should have plenty of depth in 2016. However, it’s just a matter of coach Gary Patterson figuring out the right mix in the starting lineup and easing Texada and Iloka back to a starter workload when they are at full strength.
5. Special Teams
Special teams are often overlooked in preseason predictions, but TCU’s group deserves a mention in this space with kicker Jaden Oberkrom and punter Ethan Perry expiring their eligibility. Oberkrom connected on 21 of 25 field goals last season, including all three from 50 or more yards. Perry averaged 39 yards per punt but placed 29 of his 66 kicks inside of the 20. TCU didn’t land any specialists in its 2016 signing class, which means the punting job is expected to go to either Brandon Hatfield or Adam Nunez. Hatfield, Jonathan Song or Ryan Graf will compete to replace Oberkrom at kicker.
Pre-Spring TCU Outlook in the Big 12
Oklahoma is the heavy favorite to win the Big 12 next season. But after the Sooners and the No. 1 spot is where things get interesting. Baylor has an early edge to be picked No. 2, while TCU and Oklahoma State are expected to be in the mix for the next two spots. Preseason predictions are a ways off, but the Horned Frogs are a dangerous team. Kenny Hill is a promising option at quarterback, the skill positions are loaded with talent, and the defense should improve with the return of a couple of starters from injury. TCU should find out early how its 2016 team has progressed, as a non-conference game against Arkansas is set for Sept. 10 and Oklahoma visits Fort Worth on Oct. 1.