As hard as it may be to believe, the TCU football season is a quarter over already. With such a short season, it's important to take stock of the team at certain milestones, so let's break down and grade the units so far.
Casey Pachall, Trevone Boykin, Tyler Matthews
Expectations were off the chart for this unit as NFL prospect Casey Pachall was slated to return to the starting position with Trevone Boykin slotted in behind him as wildcat and general dual threat quarterback- we were supposed to have that rarest-of-the-rare two quarterback system that actually helps the team, as the pinpoint passing of Pachall would be supplemented by the dangerous running threat of Boykin, making opposing defenses prepare for two systems. The downside is that LSU had the entire offseason to prepare for the dual offense while SE Louisiana seemed to show that they had been focusing a great deal on the Frogs in the offseason, showcasing a variety of offensive and defensive looks that they hadn't run the week before.
Tech should have been the week when the system started to pay dividends, as with a short week to prepare for Pachall and Boykin the Tech defense could have been in disarray. Sadly, we all know how it played out in actuality, as we prepare to face at least the next half of the season with only the dual threat of Boykin who may not have grown as much as we has assumed in the offseason. Still, Boykin played well against LSU and SE Louisiana, and he's not the reason no adjustments were made when there was clearly a spy on him against Tech. Boykin didn't play well against Tech, but I'm starting to come around that he (again) came into the starting job in a short week and was clearly not mentally ready to shoulder the burden himself yet- he still has a lot of room to get better and be the player we saw in flashes against the Tigers and Lions.
Offensive Line: Aviante Collins, James Dunbar, Joey Hunt, Eric Tausch, Halapoulivaati Vaitai
The offensive line held up surprisingly well against LSU and has done a solid job of using their beefy size (The line averages over 300 lbs a man) to open holes on the ground with authority. The issues of last season on struggling against faster pass rushers outside are still there and there have been far, far too many false start penalties. Still, this is a unit that has done what you'd expect it to do well, and with so much youth on the line it's no surprise that they're better at run blocking than pass blocking so far. With just three seniors in the two deep this is a line that will continue to get better at the Frogs build in the Big 12 over the next few years, but they're already a good enough unit to win with now if you play to their strengths.
Wide Receivers: Cam White, LaDarius Brown, Ty Slanina, Brandon Carter, Deante Gray, Kolby Listenbee, Ja'Juan Story
You really have to take the receiver grades with a grain of salt, as they haven't had the best of opportunities to make things happen. Still, there have been more drops than you'd like, primarily coming from previously sure handed Brandon Carter and converted cornerback Deante Gray (who has turned into a bit of a favorite target for Boykin). The lack of targets for LaDarius Brown have been a particular concern for me, as his size and speed make him a matchup nightmare, but with the shakeup in the quarterback ranks it's not too surprising we haven't already established an heir apparent to Josh Boyce yet.
Running Backs: Waymon James, B.J. Catalon, Aaron Green
The best offensive players of the year thus far are the criminally underused trio of James, Catalon and Green (Though Green hasn't put on a great performance so far, the Frogs have been tipping their plays a bit when he's in the game as Green isn't a great pass blocker). Catalon and James are averaging a phenomenal 6.6 and 5.1 yards per carry, despite not having a run over 30 yards to inflate those numbers.
What the numbers bear out instead is phenomenal consistency for both backs, making nothing into positive plays and turning holes into first downs with regularity. Still, it's hard to give the unit an A grade as apart from the burst from Catalon against LSU they haven't had a carry over 20 yards, and despite the beefy yards per carry average they're averaging under 100 yards a game between them. Part of that is on Boykin, but a bigger part of it is on the last factor of the offense.
Playcalling: Jarrett Anderson
Much like last year, Anderson has struggled to put the players in the right places to make plays, sending the amazing speedster back Aaron Green straight up the middle to try and power for yards while neglecting to feed a powerful running game in all three of TCU's games to date. In particular, Anderson has gone away from runs and short passes on first down, which has resulted in the frogs regularly facing second and third downs of seven or more yards, contributing to TCU's abysmal third down conversion rate.
Patterson had mentioned that they had been game planning for Tech during fall practices, but with the short week Anderson didn't do enough to adjust the plan from what would have been a good plan for a team with Casey Pachall at quarterback to a good plan with Trevone Boykin at quarterback. With a bye week and nothing but Boykin on the horizon for the foreseeable future, Anderson has the opportunity to adjust the system and take Patterson's advice to feature the running game more, but through the first quarter of the season it's hard to call the playcalling anything but a failure.
Defensive Line: Jon Koontz, Chucky Hunter, Davion Pierson, Matt Anderson, Devonte Fields, James McFarland, Terrell Lathan, Jon Lewis
Grade: B (or Incomplete)
The line has done a solid job in stopping the run so far, repeatedly stymieing the LSU running game at the line and absolutely devouring Tech's attempts to establish the run. Still, the pass rush has been frustratingly absent, particularly against LSU where talented question mark Zach Mettenberger repeatedly received time to pick apart the TCU secondary on third down.
This should have been bolstered by the arrival of Devonte Fields, but against Tech the reigning Big 12 defensive player of the year was relegated to keeping contain on most downs and didn't press the issue in trying to get to Baker Mayfield. Now with Fields suffering a broken foot late in the Tech game it's unclear how the line will progress from here, but Patterson will have to cook up something to get pressure while only rushing 4 against SMU and in Big 12 play.
Linebackers: Jonathan Anderson, Marcus Mallet, Paul Dawson, Sammy Douglas
The good news is that so far there hasn't been a moment where the linebackers have looked out of place or uncertain. Given the question marks in this group and the desertion prior to LSU that's better than expected for this group, and it's been a pleasant surprise. The bad news is that there were blown coverages against SE Louisiana that took advantage of their inexperience (the two wheel routes, one dropped and one taken for a touchdown stand out) and there have been some tackling issues throughout the back seven. I'm impressed with the unit so far, but also aware that they haven't been asked to do too much, so take this with a grain of salt.
Secondary: Sam Carter, Elisha Olabode, Chris Hackett, Jason Verrett, Kevin White, Keivon Gamble, Derrick Kindred, et. al.
The secondary gets the only A, as despite LSU's passing totals I put a lot of fault there on the defensive line. The LSU wideouts were large and fast as we'll see all year, and you simply can't give talented quarterbacks ages to hold the ball or you're going to get beaten somewhere no matter how many great players you have in your secondary. TCU is the proof, as I believe the Frogs have at least four great players in the secondary, as they showed with a suffocating performance against Texas Tech- where Jason Verrett in particular absolutely shined by erasing Tech's top wideout from the game. Verrett will likely not match his interception numbers from last year, but don't let that fool you into thinking he's not the same great player he was- if anything Verrett is better and offenses are rightfully avoiding him like the plague.
Still, there are issues that go beyond the time opposing quarterbacks have been given, as all of the secondary, bar Verrett, had missed tackle opportunities against Tech which turned into first downs and more. Even the safety blanket Elisha Olabode had a bad miss early against Tech that ended up costing the Frogs big. Fortunately, the tackling can be addressed and Verrett is my frontrunner for Big 12 defensive player of the year (even if he won't win due to a lack of stats), so I'm still as optimistic as ever about the unit as a whole. If they can make tackles stick in quarter 2 of the season I'd expect a solid A or A+.
Playcalling: Gary Patterson
I grade Patterson a bit more harshly than perhaps I should, but if there's anyone to blame for that it's Patterson himself for setting such a fantastic precedent to compare the first three games to. Against LSU when the secondary was suffering due to lack of pressure, Patterson only rarely deigned to blitz, which I had to ding him for. Cliche as it is to say, the disclaimer is that Patterson knows more about defense than all of the blog's writers and readers combined, but to me when you have the option of something that's working well (two corner blitzes both led to very quick sacks of Mettenberger) or something that's working poorly (relying on the front four to generate pressure and playing zone behind) you should give more opportunity to the successful plan. If you get gashed for 12 yards on third and seven because they ran a draw, I'd make that trade over hanging the secondary out to dry and hoping that Kevin White can get his hand in there without drawing pass interference.
Additionally, Patterson did comment that SE Louisiana was running plays and formations that they hadn't showed on tape in the first half, and the defense did make solid adjustments in the second half, but the number of opportunities the Lions had was worrying and more about the calls than the players. Finally, Devonte Fields was keeping contain instead of rushing the passer against Tech, and I don't know of any world where that seems like the best use of the reigning defensive MVP. I think the best Patterson defenses have been the ones that have been more aggressive, so I'd really like to see more of it the rest of the season. All that said, Patterson is the best defensive coach in the business and if I asked him about the concerns I've had with the playcalling I'm sure he'd have the answers.
Punting: Ethan Perry
Color me disappointed with Perry's performance so far this year. Last year Perry took over for the crowd favorite fat guy punter Anson Kelton without any noticeable decline in performance. There were occasional shanks, but by and large Perry brought the leg and gave fans hopes that he could be an all-conference or even all-American level punter given time. Sadly, the shanks have been a bit more frequent and damaging through the early part of this year and Perry simply hasn't been reversing the field as he did so often as a Freshman. Perry's punting average is down from 44 yards to 38 yards per attempt, which is average at best, so Perry gets an average grade, but he's still my pick for most likely to improve his performance as the season goes on.
Kicker: Jaden Oberkrom
Possibly the best performer on the team without dreadlocks? Oberkrom has been booming kicks through the end zone, has gone 4/5 on field goals, with the lone miss being a 55 yard attempt and has been perfect on extra points. All of those confidence issues we saw late last season seem to be behind him as Oberkrom has been absolutely fantastic so far to the point where there's not much to say about it. Keep up the good work!
Kick Returner: Waymon James, Brandon Carter, B.J. Catalon
This should really split between an A+ for Catalon, a solid B for Waymon James and a D for Brandon Carter. As you'll remember, Carter's fumble was the first turning point in the LSU game, ensuring the TCU defense remained on the field for the majority of the first quarter before the offense even got ahold of the ball, while Catalon's return for a touchdown helped spark the rally that got TCU into the game. Beyond that, the return game has been above average but nothing too spectacular.
Punt Returner: Brandon Carter
Yes, he had a couple of good returns against Tech, but he also pulled a Skye in fumbling an early punt against Tech. We recovered it succesfully, but after Skye Dawson's 2012 I did not need a reminder that returners can fumble punts so early in my 2013 football season. I generally don't ask much from my punt returners, but I stick to the three rules: Don't field a punt behind the ten yard line, don't field a punt over your shoulder and don't ever muff a punt. Carter can run a punt in for a touchdown every game from here on in, but I'm still going to have my heart in my throat when the opposition punts.