After winning a combined 23 games in 2014 and ‘15, TCU took a seemingly inevitable step back in 2016. The Horned Frogs faded in the second half of the season, dropping five of their final seven games.
The disappointing year left plenty on Gary Patterson’s plate this spring. His team is facing personnel questions at key positions and dealing with the aftershocks of a coaching staff shakeup. Horned Frog faithful will have plenty of stories to keep an eye on this offseason.
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1. A Sonny outlook on offense?
In a move that made little sense to anyone not named Doug Meacham, TCU’s co-offensive coordinator left for Kansas in the offseason. Sonny Cumbie, who’s widely seen as a rising star in the coaching community, is now adding play-calling duties to his job description. Patterson also recruited Air Raid devotee Sonny Dykes to his staff as an offensive consultant after he got the boot from California.
The Horned Frogs saw their offensive productivity drop dramatically in 2016, so changes on that side of the ball aren’t necessarily a bad thing. If the Sonnys can’t reignite the attack, another middling year is in store in Fort Worth.
2. Back on the Hill?
Coordinator isn’t the only key area of concern about TCU’s offense this offseason. The Horned Frogs have serious questions to answer at quarterback, too.
Last season, Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill played like every bit the enigma he was in College Station. He looked great at times, including completing 26 of 44 passes against Oklahoma for 449 yards and five touchdowns. As the season wound down, however, the big plays in the passing game dried up.
Hill’s primary competition this season will come from freshman Shawn Robinson, a dual-threat prospect targeted early in the recruiting process by Cumbie. Robinson is already on campus, offering an opportunity to make his case right away.
3. Rebuilding the defensive line
Three contributors from TCU’s 2016 defensive line have graduated: Josh Carraway, Aaron Curry and James McFarland. The headliner of that group is Carraway, a defensive end who established himself as one of the Big 12’s best defenders in his three years as a starter.
The Horned Frogs return some nice pieces from last year’s unit, including Mat Boesen and Chris Bradley. The rising seniors combined for 13.5 tackles for a loss and will almost certainly occupy two spots in the starting lineup in the fall.
This spring, defensive line coach Zarnell Fitch will be looking as much at depth as who will play up front with Boesen and Bradley.
4. How is KaVontae Turpin feeling?
Job one with Turpin, a game-breaking receiver, might be keeping him healthy for the spring. The dynamic offensive weapon struggled through 2016 with a knee injury that robbed him of nearly all of his explosiveness.
Tuprin at full speed is a terror. Patterson probably won’t take many chances with him during spring ball.
(On the flip side, that means more chances for other pass catchers to impress.)
5. Shoring up the pass defense
TCU’s pass defense eroded significantly last season, as the Horned Frogs allowed a full yard more per attempt, 7.3, than they did in 2015. They tumbled from 22nd nationally in passer rating to 59th in ‘16.
A wealth of returning experience in the secondary should help this fall. Four of five starters return, including safeties Niko Small and Nick Orr, both of whom finished in the top five in tackles on the team.
Even though the chemistry should be good, the DBs clearly can use the extra work this spring.
Pre-Spring Outlook for TCU in the Big 12
What’s TCU’s place in the Big 12 pecking order? It’s not an easy question to answer.
Despite two fantastic years in 2014 and ‘15, the program’s overall record since stepping up in ‘12 is mixed. The Horned Frogs went a combined 23-3 in ‘14 and ‘15; their record in the other three seasons: 17-21.
In that sense, 2017 feels like a referendum on TCU’s Big 12 future. Another year in the range of six or seven wins, and that’s probably what you’re going to get on the regular from this team for the foreseeable future.
Jumping up into the top tier of the Big 12 this season will require Gary Patterson and his staff sorting out the quarterback position in the next six months. If offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie can steer Kenny Hill into better decisions on the field, TCU could win eight or nine games in 2017. Otherwise, this looks like another year of fighting for bowl eligibility.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.