Gary Patterson's defenses have been the stingiest in the nation three years running; to claim a fourth consecutive title, TCU's redshirt freshmen in the secondary will have to grow up fast, and the new starters on the defensive line will have to live up to their billing. All of this uncertaintly doesn't seem to have ruffled any feathers in Fort Worth.
"Over the last fourteen years we’ve taught it the same way," Patterson said early in the spring. "The same coverage got taught today, blitz package, yesterday we taught the tackling drill without pads on. You have to have a starting point, you got to see how much a team can grow in fifteen days."
Three very good bits of news for the Frogs' defense come on the defensive line, in the emergence of end Braylon Broughton (finally!), and tackles Jeremy Coleman and Ray Burns as forces. These players—Broughton and Coleman seniors, Burns only a redshirt sophomore—relieve pressure on the redshirted and incoming freshmen to play at a higher level than they probably can. Patterson called the line one of the surprises this spring. "I’ve been surprised on how well we move at the defensive line." The highlight performance from the line has made life difficult for the offensive tackles. Patterson feels this defensive line is better than last year's.
Braylon Broughton is competing with Matt Anderson to replace Wayne Daniels on the right side. The senior is the largest defensive end to play at TCU in at least a few years (6-6, 272). Anderson was limited in spring. "He’s finally getting to where he can do some stuff, but we won’t let him run anything this spring. Same with [Ross Forrest] and Tank Carder. The key is to get them back by fall," the coach reported. With the first team snaps to himself, Broughton flourished. He is a better run-stopper than Daniels was, and slapped down passes, including one in the spring game. Clifton Murphy is also playing at right end.
On the other side, Stansly Maponga returns in 2011, and had a remarkable spring. Patterson said "The biggest thing now is his foot’s healthy, he didn’t go through the off-season because he had surgery. He didn’t get to do what everybody else did when they got in better shape and bigger and stronger. Stansly is going to be a better player come August, because he got him healthy and now he’s getting through spring. If he lifts and runs he’ll get bigger and stronger, he’ll be a different player come September." Bigger or not, the sophomore played with passion in the spring. In one practice, he knocked quarterback Casey Pachall to the turf, prompting retaliation from Jeff Olson, which in turn spawned a practice-halting brawl. "That wasn’t a bad play, that was a knucklehead play. It was an effort play," Patterson said.
The good news at defensive tackle comes in the competition to replace Kelly Griffin. Junior Jeremy Coleman and sophomore Ray Burns have both turned on the jets. Burns began to show that he'd gotten ahold of the position last season; Patterson said in the bowl practices he really stood out. The sophomore from Maud has lost some weight, and gained some strength. Patterson credits his turnaround to buying into the program and continuing to work hard. "Unbelievable turnaround," Patterson said of Burns. "He got mature, it’s what good programs do. Him and David Johnson both. It’s a reason why we signed three defensive tackles out of this last class so they’re be pushed by those guys."
Coleman began this spring to show the same moxie. This means that David Johnson, who redshirted last season, and the trio of defensive tackles who enroll in a few weeks will probably not be in the mix for first team minutes this fall. Perhaps no other news out of spring ball brightens the prospects for another very good season in 2011 than this.
D.J. Yendrey starting the last five games at the other inside spot last season, and enters 2011 as the presumptive starter. He's 273 pounds, up from 246 pounds when he enrolled, and has always been one of the Frogs' top bull rushers. Learning the rest of the position has made him a starter. "It was a lot different and our high school didn't have detailed stuff," said Yendrey, who played defensive end and tight end in high school. "It's a lot more complicated here." In the spring game the defensive tackles kept the offensive linemen off the linebackers and allowed them to flow very freely up and down the line.
The inside-most practice watcher at TCU's Rivals site says the quality of the Frogs' pass rush is so high that obscures the development of the young offensive line. Overall the defensive line stopped the run and collapsed the pocket quickly. Because TCU's defense has always done very well when its line is potent, the spring performance gives Frog fans good reason to expect another top-notch defensive year in '11.
Behind the line, two freshman linebackers early enrolled: Austin Terry and Deryck Gildon. "We’re not putting them in anything crazy but we’re throwing them into the fire and they’ve done okay," Patterson said at the beginning of the spring. "We taught more defense today than some defenses teach all year, our zone blitz package. And, they handled it pretty good. Actually, the guys who screwed up the most were the older linebackers. Our younger safeties actually did real well, we get our linebackers to do it right we’ll be doing okay." Gildon quickly emerged as a fast riser on the depth chart. Comparing Brock (another fast riser in 2009) and Gildon, Patterson points out how intelligent Gildon is. "He’s a different kind of player [from Tanner], he’s not quite as fast but he’s very attention to detail. It’s amazing how he doesn’t make very many mistakes. It’s just amazing for a guy that’s been here three months, how well he does in the system. Some guys say it’s hard to learn but he has an attention to detail that’s amazing."
How Gildon would see the field in 2011 is unclear; he played some with the twos late in the spring, but only because Tank Carder did not practice this spring, and Kenny Cain held the top spot in Carder's absence. "He had to do it last year because Tank got hurt in the middle of spring last year," Patterson said of Cain. "It’s a good thing." Cain is very fast, stopping a stretched play once very impressively. "He’s been running around making plays, but I expect him too. He’s going into his third year of playing. The linebacker group should be the best group on the field for us."
Tanner Brock and Kris Gardner played one and two at the other linebacker spot. Marcus Mallett made at least one good impression in a middle drill, colliding with Dwight Smith. Smith did stop but he didn’t go down, but the hit drew a big reaction on the sideline.
More good news about the defense comes from the secondary. A handful of young players are earning their stripes at corner and safety, and they're doing so with remarkable speed. Their coach—who earned his stripes by using the secondary in unusual ways—has been delighted with their progress. "There’s a lot of guys in there that want to be really good and they’re communicating and talking. I’ve had younger groups here that wouldn’t say anything and didn’t know what it was to play at the level we play here at TCU. I really enjoy it up to this point, the level of enthusiasm of trying to get better and communicate and listen. You know me, I don’t usually say very many things nice."
But it’s not hard to be nice when discussing the secondary this spring. Playmakers in the redshirt freshman class have come out in droves. Look for TCU’s 2011 secondary to be the start of a very stable squad for years to come. One thing about this young group that has impressed the coach is their want-to. "With corner and safety it’s all about playing with chemistry and that will come, it won’t come today, it’s down the road. Everyday they get better at it. The key is, I really do believe that they want to be really good. Anytime you have a group that wants to be really good and doesn’t mind being coached hard, you got a chance to be successful."
Starting at boundary corner: two new players are competing for the starting snaps, early enrolled JUCO transfer Jason Verrett and redshirt freshman Travaras Battle (or "Battle-Smith;" nobody seems certain which) who played on special teams as a true freshman in 2010. Last year's backup, Elisha Olabode, has been moved to safety. Patterson says, of the competition, "I don’t know, it changes everyday but the competition makes them better, I can tell you that." "I really like the way Travaras [Battle] and Jason Verrett have improved, but there are still the little things because that position is the boundary guy." Patterson says we haven’t seen Verrett's full potential. "He’s so much different after being in the weight room, just being here since January of what he will be like in August because he’ll get another cycle of lifting now and in the summer. And he’s hurt right now, he’s got a hip flexor that’s bothering him so he’s playing at about 70%." Verrett is not the biggest guy, but he may be the most aggressive. "Our boundary corner is a guy that has to have ice in his veins," Patterson said. "He’s got to be able to play with a lot of discipline. When we’ve had a boundary corner that could really play, like Teague has been the last two years with the way we play coverage it makes us a lot better because of we overplay things. So, it’s going to be important how or weak safety plays because it gives that guy confidence."
Opposite the Battle-Verrett competition, redshirt freshman Kevin White is challenging returning starter Greg McCoy at field corner. White spent at least one practice working with the ones. Patterson explained, "Greg wasn’t playing and he’s a senior, when I don’t tell the difference between a freshman and a senior it’s time to get the freshman ready. We don’t have any leadership, until we get leadership we’re not going to get any better." McCoy responded, and was back with the first team the next practice.
The safeties have impressed a lot of practice watchers for their size. Patterson says the size hasn’t yet translated into sufficient physicality, but that’s about the only negative thing he’s said about his safeties this spring. Considering how many of them are young and/or new to the position, that’s impressive in itself. Humorously, the coach said, "Every year, at some point and time, I say we're terrible and I haven't said that yet. I thought some of our younger guys like Sam Carter were more physical today the longer the scrimmage went. I thought Jonathan Anderson was more physical and Olabode came up and made a physical play. So the key to it is, Olabode's never been a safety, Jonathan Anderson has never been a safety, Antonio has never been a safety and Sam Carter has never been a safety and we're turning them into safeties. It's not just learning how to play our scheme, it's also learning how to play the position itself. It's like Luttrell a couple of years ago, every day they're getting better by leaps and bounds." He added, later, I really like the way our young safeties have progressed. It’s just a work in progress, everyday this time of year is always a new day."
The quarterback of the defense is the free safety. Tejay Johnson played that role very well for years, and now must be replaced. Johnny Fobbs backed up Johnson for two years, and held off sustained challenges for first teams snaps from Elisha Olabode and Sam Carter. "[Fobbs] is a fifth year senior, he’s been a leader and he understands the concept that the guy at free safety has to be the general of the defense and he’s done everything up to this point to do that." A shoulder injury ended his spring about a week prematurely. "He’ll be back in two-a-days, he’s about like Tank. He had the shoulder surgery, it wasn’t as bad but he’ll be back in July. "He’ll be lifting but won’t have any contact,"Patterson said of Fobbs. Prior to his injury, the coach gave him this compliment: "I haven’t noticed him making bad plays."
In the mix late in the spring at free safety was Devin Johnson, formerly a walk-on corner, who impressed the head coach with several nice plays, including some good open field tackles. "Today, and he made some unbelievable plays," Patterson said of Johnson. "I’ll be honest with you, if they don’t be careful the two safeties are going to be Elisha [Olabode] and D.J.[Johnson]. I’m not so sure the walkon is not going to beat them all out, won’t be the first one... He’s just been amazing, he’s been a safety for three days. He can’t even come to meeting in the afternoon, he was thirty minutes late because he had an engineering class. He doesn’t even meet right before practice where he can really remember and on the field to do some of the things he does is truly amazing to me."
At strong safety, the competition to replace Alex Ibiloye is primarily between redshirt freshmen Trenton Thomas, who impressed on the scout team at the position, and redshirt freshman, who was a quarterback until shortly before spring drills began. Carter has generated a lot of buzz. "We’ve only taught two days but really it’s amazing because he’s a very smart player," Patterson said of Carter. "I’ve been very happy with all of our red shirt freshmen and sophomores because they’re all very athletic. We’ll see what they do when we get them in there for game time. Right now you’re just teaching one coverage and one blitz. I’m very happy up to this point."
Thomas was not without praise, however, and redshirt freshman Antonio Graves also took some snaps at strong safety. Graves played most of the spring at weak safety, behind Tek Cuba and Jonathan Anderson. Graves was just too good to keep so low on the depth chart. "Antonio Graves had not played any strong safety and I asked him yesterday so we can find ways to get him on the field to play [strong] to see how it goes. And he did, he made a couple of plays. You keep moving people around and find a way to get your best 65 players on game day."
Tek Cuba is as close as it comes in the present roster to a returning starter in the secondary. He’s been a backup safety for years, starting every once in a while as far back as the ’08 opener in Albuquerque. Generally he played well this spring. "Well, he's playing better but he missed two tackles today he can't miss to be a great player like our safeties have to be," said the coach. "Our safeties have to be great tacklers. So, he's got to become a better tackler and do the things he needs to do. His communication has been very good, that's what you get from a 5th year senior." Cuba’s main competition for the starting snaps at weak safety comes from redshirt freshman Jonathan Anderson. The coach sounded matter-of-fact when commenting on Anderson’s appearance with the first team late in the spring, "Antonio had to go to a test and Cuba tweaked a groin so the next guy up, there you go. In fact I was real happy with him except for that last touchdown he gave up."