‘Try running into a wall. A normal person will slow down at the last moment - a hitter will accelerate...That's what makes a hitter. Not size, not speed. It's the ability to suppress your survival instincts."
--Doug Plank, Chicago Bears Safety, 1975-1982
With 15 days remaining before the season opener, all eyes are on TCU. They've been on us since we went from unranked last season to #4 by January. But a few major questions remain, and Gary Patterson isn't giving many hints. One of those questions is who will start at safety. Sports Illustrated and NOLA.com are just 2 of the sports-writing entities wondering if the Frogs will find solid starters in the secondary by the time we meet the Gophers on September 3. Clearly they don't know TCU. The team currently lists 11 safeties on their roster:
Courtesy of GoFrogs.com.
Note that only 3 of the 11 are upperclassmen. So let's start with what the seniors bring to the table. Derrick Kindred started all 13 games last year and was tied for second in interceptions with 4. He had 80 tackles, including 63 solos tackles. Though he wasn't a starter, Kenny Iloka played all 13 games in 2014 and had 15 tackles and 8 stops for the season. Junior Denzel Johnson also played all 13 games last season and had 16 tackles, including 12 solo. Kindred, Iloka, and Johnson bring talent and experience to the team for 2015.
But don't count out the underclassmen. Travin Howard appeared in all 13 games last season on defense and special teams, and Nick Orr played in 12 games. Orr had 3 tackles for the season and an interception at SMU. Steve Wesley played in the Samford and SMU games, and Michael Downing made his first college appearance against Texas Tech last year. While these players didn't start or lead the team in tackles, you can bet they were watching carefully from the sidelines and taking plenty of notes from players like Chris Hackett, Sam Carter, and Derrick Kindred.
And then there are the freshmen. Ready to prove themselves on a college field, the youngsters are definitely contenders for some action this year. Ridwan Issahaku is a redshirt freshman, but he played quarterback for 2 years in high school. He led Norcross High School (GA) to a state title in 2013 after 2 interceptions and 4 pass breakups as a corner. That QB experience gives him the ability to read plays quickly and adjust his coverage. Ben Rinke also redshirted last year, but his high school highlights are fun to watch. He's quick on his feet and makes some great low hits on his opponents. Local Bowie High School grad Niko Small was rated the #34 safety nationally and #9 safety by Scout.com. In 2014, he racked up 128 tackles, 6 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries, 4 blocked kicks, 1 sack, 7 tackles for loss, and a defensive touchdown. Small is a great addition to the TCU secondary. Finally, Arico Evans is an interesting addition as a safety. As a quarterback for Dallas' Hillcrest High School, he was the MVP his senior year. He passed for 1,358 yards, ran for 1,076 yards, and had 34 combined touchdowns.
We all know Patterson loves speed and versatility in his players. It's been a recipe for success with players like LaDainian Tomlinson and Trevone Boykin. So it's not surprising to see him placing guys with quarterback and receiver experience at safety. Additionally, he knows the importance of preparing for injured starters during the season. Ohio State was the perfect example last year when they won the National Championship with their third string quarterback starting for the third time in his career. An article published by the Star-Telegram last week has Patterson quoted as saying, "If you're going to win a conference title, want to win your first ballgame, you've got to win with your 2s and 3s sometimes...right now, we're preparing everybody. You're one play away from the next guy's got to go." With injuries already plaguing both offense and defense, Patterson and his staff are working hard to develop that depth with the clock ticking down to game time. In the same article, Nick Orr was mentioned as playing at both safety and corner during recent practices. Patterson also noted the secondary had 4 interceptions against the TCU first-team offense. ESPN's 2015 season preview for TCU notes the Frogs' need for a strong safety after Sam Carter's departure and lists Denzel Johnson as their choice for starter.
RustyFrog's Prediction: I think Kindred, Iloka, and Johnson will likely start at safety this year. But Orr, Small, and Evans, along with the other underclassmen, are all still in the running. With TCU adding bigger fish to the schedule this year, and big games like Oklahoma and Baylor looming at the end of the season, I think it's safe to assume there will be injuries in the secondary that will force younger players to see game experience. I also think Patterson will give his second-and-third-stringers some game time if TCU has any crazy blowouts, like we did against Iowa State, SMU, and Texas Tech last season. Overall, I think every one of the safeties on our roster could have game stats under their name before next seasone