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TCU 2011 PREVIEW: Defense, special teams

"Best in the nation"-- it's beginning to feel like a birthright for the TCU defense, which has brought home that hardware three years running. No team has done it four times running, at least not since the NCAA started keeping stats. Every year the savants say TCU must replace too much talent to do it again, and (so far) the savants have been wrong, and then wrong again. Can the Frogs make history, while (again!) making other teams cry?

The first news on TCU's defense is the new safeties coach, Trey Haverty, who replaced Chad Glascow this offseason. Haverty, who spent three seasons as a graduate assistant at TCU before coaching the defense at division III Millsaps last season. How hard was it to return to TCU?

"It was an easy no-brainer," said Haverty. "There are not many defensive coaching staffs in the nation that are better than TCU... The good thing is coach Patterson is hands on and he's in there teaching... If you know that he's going to be watching every minute, that means you're going to cover every little X and dot every I."

Patterson: "He’s already done a great job recruiting. We lost a really good coach who was here a long time so he has big shoes to fill and he’s done a great job." Trey got married in July.

It doesn’t seem to make much difference at TCU what the strength of the defense is from one season to the next; it’s just always impregnable. Patterson lists off the differences between his five top-rated defenses since 2000:

"We [had national #1 rated defenses] differently all five times. In 2000, we had 10 NFL guys and we hardly blitzed at all, playing base defense and only blitzed 6 percent of the time. In 2002, our personnel was different and we man-blitzed 43 percent of the time. In 2008, we were a zone-blitz, two shell team, that's what we did the best. In 2009, we were a four-man rush team because we could run. In 2010, 50 percent of the time we held offenses to three and out."

Got that? Besides the easy takeaway, that Gary Patterson is smarter than you are, there’s this little nugget, "Last year we weren't very good in red-zone defense. The key was, teams didn't get there, so it didn't make any difference."

It made no difference in 2010, and teams that are looking to capitalize on TCU’s young secondary to make a difference in 2011 are going to find themselves in a bind because of the increased production from TCU’s front six. The Frogs won't be depending on freshmen to replace seniors on the line, as some feared following the graduation of three starters from the front four. Rather, senior Braylon Broughton at end, and sophomore Ray Burns at tackle, have both come on very strong in the offseason. This is good news at tackle especially, where the Frogs enrolled three very talented tackles this summer, but would rather have more developed players taking the snaps.

Across from Broughton is returning starter Stansly Maponga, who is headed for a monster year. He’s outrageously fast, and, with Broughton, made TCU’s tackles look bad all off-season. Patterson, never one to leave a weakness unnoticed, points out two:

"Here’s the thing, [Maponga and Broughton] did on third downs. That wasn’t on first downs, we got to get it to where they’re getting them on first downs. ... He’s got himself a lot better, now how good he is, I always worry about the sophomore jinx."

Patterson may be worried, but he’s the only one.

Ross Forrest, Cliff Murphy and Jon Koontz are rotating on the second team at end. Koontz was a walk-on, and is now a sophomore. Patterson says, "We need depth at defensive end and if he does it will make us a lot better. We’re sure glad he’s here, I can tell you that." Matt Anderson is out for the year, redshirting because of an injury.

Inside, the three true freshman made lots of noise in camp, but it appears none of them beat out Yendrey or Coleman or Burns for starting snaps. As of the last open practice, it appears the starters will be D.J. Yendrey and Ray Burns, with David Johnson and Jeremy Coleman backing them up. But suddenly defensive tackle is one of TCU’s deepest positions. Two freshmen (Chuck Hunter and Jon Lewis) will not redshirt, and are expected to play against Baylor.

At linebacker, the only news is that backups Kenny Cain and Kris Gardner are keeping starters Tank Carder’s and Tanner Brock’s feet to the fire. Carder and Tanner Brock are one of college ball’s best linebacker tandems. Carder says they trust each other. "We know he’s going to hold up his side like I will my side." Patterson is high on Cain:

"[He's] having the best camp of anybody right now. If I had to start somebody tomorrow it would be Kenny Cain over Tank Carder. He makes plays. He's losing 10 pounds of water weight every day and playing all day. He's ready to go."

Here’s a key from the Coach to developing a good secondary: "That’s why we’ve been so good against the pass the last couple of years, we’ve had older receivers that ran great routes and a great quarterback. When you’re playing against a great quarterback and great receivers every day, you’re going to get better every day." Does this give Frog fans pause when expecting a fourth consecutive top-rated defense in 2011? Find the answer in the TCU offense preview, coming in a few days.

In the secondary one may see this year the fruits of TCU's last two recruiting classes. Fully seven freshmen, redshirt freshmen, or true sophomores appear in the two-deep for the five secondary positions.

At least two of these new players will start in Waco, one of them JUCO transfer Jason Verrett at corner. Verrett early enrolled, had a great spring, and has continued to impress this fall. Patterson gushes over this sophomore:

"Verrett had an unbelievable summer. We had a good spring in the weight room getting stronger and faster. He’s a junior college transfer but he’s a sophomore, he’s a three for three. So, he has three years here, he has really come on. I’m very excited, he doesn’t make a lot of mistakes."

A few weeks later, the praise hadn’t stopped. "Always you need a bigger corner on the boundary for what we do, but he’s a fighter and he has a 40-inch vertical. He’s a smart player, we just got to keep coming on at that position." Fellow starting corner Greg McCoy is also impressed, "One of the guys I really think is going to do a great job is Jason Verrett, he’s been doing a great job with extra work. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he can do this season."

Backing up Verrett is true sophomore Travaras Battle. Early in August Patterson said Battle "has a long way to go. Verrett is the clear leader right now."

This week Patterson has called them "both ones" and says they will alternate.

Across at field corner is returning starter Greg McCoy, one of the fastest Frogs. Kevin White is the backup.

The starters at safety seem set—Johnny Fobbs at the crucial free safety, Tek Cuba at weak, and redshirt freshman Sam Carter at strong. Fobbs and Cuba are both seniors. Expect redshirt freshman Trenton Thomas to see lots of playing time with Carter at strong safety. The absence of would-be starters Jurrell Thompson and Sir DeMarco Bledsoe has been noted at Frogs O' War already.

Elisha Olabode, who moved to safety this spring, seems to have the lead for backup free safety. Tank Carder singled Olabode out as one of the young players who impressed him this summer.

Olabode’s chief competition for the spot comes from true freshman Chris Hackett, who made waves in his first drills as a Horned Frog. Patterson was very impressed, from day one.

"Hackett had an unbelievable first day for a safety. What our safeties have to know, that’s like trying to be Trevone Boykin. To be a free safety in our system is like playing quarterback. To do what he did today, he had two or three picks in one-on-one’s and a pick in the half-zone period."

The praise for Hackett continued in later practices. "We ended up at the end of spring even with our red shirts, we only have two seniors, everybody else hasn’t really played. Chris Hackett was the guy to me that stuck out for all the young safeties. He did what we wanted him to do. Elisha (Olabode) has got have a big two-a-days backing up Johnny Fobbs."

While Johnny Fobbs was out a few practices with an injury, Olabode and Hackett took snaps with the first team, and eventually Hackett seemed to be in the lead. The coach said,

"If Johnny goes out the first game he’s got to be ready. Tyler Luttrell came in with 10 days left (before the 2009 season) and started the whole season. That’s how we do things. He’s (Hackett) been doing things, he made mistakes but they’re going to make mistakes. Once Johnny comes back he’s [Hackett] going to be scrimmaging on Saturday with the two’s. He better get ready."

The second of the true freshmen who drew praise early and often is Jaime Byrd, who switched his commitment from Boise to TCU a few days before signing day, and it appears the switch was a steal for the Frogs in more ways than one.

"We only into our fourth practice, and right now I’m very happy. The way we teach and the way we practice, guys if they want to they got an opportunity to expand their knowledge and get better. Hackett and Quincy Aldridge do too. Jamie Byrd had an unbelievable play in perimeter option. You start to see guys who are coming into their own."

Mid-way through two-a-days, Patterson said, "He’s a guy that is really starting to step up. He’s in our top three, he might be in our top two."

A third freshman safety who may see playing time in 2011 is Quincy Aldridge. Redshirt freshman Antonio Graves has moved from safety to receiver. Walk-on safety Devin Johnson, a junior, is still a walk-on, but appears to have been passed by many of the freshmen, as expected.

Jonathan Anderson is vying for the number two spot behind Tek Cuba at weak safety.

On special teams, Ross Evans returns as kicker, and probably will leave TCU with most kicking records in tow. Anson Kelton returns as punter, and is still listed at 280 pounds. Hopefully he will get a chance to make a tackle before graduating. Patterson says high on this duo. "Anson is punting the ball better than I’ve ever seen him in camp. Him and Ross. Ross has been charting the other kickers and writing a report every night. They’re acting like seniors are suppose to act."

Greg McCoy and Skye Dawson, and occasionally Brandon Carter and Cam White, are the kick returners. That’s a lot of straight line speed, but not necessarily wily speed, like Kerley's.