Each TCU Football season brings the fear - and/or the promise - of the unknown to the table, and part of the fun is predicting the players that are going to be the next wave of greatness. With that being said, we take a look at five players sure to make their mark for the Frogs starting on September 2nd.
Kenedy Snell (RB/WR): Everyone has been talking about Jalen Reagor, so I decided to go a different direction and brag on his former high school teammate a bit. We know that Reagor, and Omar Manning (once he is healthy) will likely be difference makers in year one for the Frog offense. But it’s Snell that has been a more than pleasant surprise this August, as the speedy multi-purpose back has caught up to the college game quickly and played a vita role in preparing the Frogs for opening night.
With nicks and dings plaguing the Frogs this fall, as is often the case is camp, and GP wanting to rest Kyle Hicks and limit his reps, Snell has taking a large portion of the reps for TCU and been outstanding. In fact, Patterson did something he almost never does - compliment a freshman - when he spoke at length of the impression the two former Waxahachie Indians have made early:
I’ll tell you, a guy that’s saved us is Snell. He’s playing running back, he’s doing all of it. Reagor and Snell, the two Waxahachie guys, have had an unbelievable two weeks.”
“They don’t seem to get tired,” Patterson said. “That’s a tribute to the way they practice at Waxahachie. They’re used to this kind of rigor and the way we do things.”
With a three deep that features senior Kyle Hicks - one of the best all-around backs in the Big 12, if not the country - and sophomore Darius Anderson (speed on speed on speed) and Sewo Olonilua (a mix of speed and power and sheer terror coming at you), Snell will have his work cut out for him to get reps early. But I have a feeling Sonny Cumbie and Curtis Luper will find a way to get him on the field. He could also see time on special teams as a punt and kick returner, especially if GP decides to limit KaVontae Turpin’s touches in that area. Snell is just as fast and shows flashes of being just as dynamic, so I don’t see any reason he can’t make an impact there early.
Lucas Niang (OT): It’s not often that TCU recruits Connecticut, but one of the most important signings from a year ago might very well come from The Nutmeg State. Niang is a massive human being at 6’6” and 340 pounds, and he performed well when thrust into duty last year due to injuries. Niang played in 12 of 13 contests in 2016 and more than held his own; the former three star recruit and top 50 tackle in the country showed good footwork and a high football IQ as he developed into a reliable pass blocker and someone who could open up holes for Kyle Hicks and company.
Niang will likely be the only non-senior starter on the offensive line for TCU this fall, and with questionable depth behind him, expected to play a significant role. Part of the Frogs’ struggles a season ago on offense are attributed to the line play, and improving upon that is one of the biggest keys to a successful 2017 campaign.
Innis Gaines (S): Unfortunately for the sophomore safety, his breakout has been delayed by injuries during fall camp, and as such, he continues to fly under the radar a bit. But Gaines has all the tools to be the next great safety in Gary Patterson’s defense, and though he may not start game one, it won’t be long before he works his way back up to first string.
No one was more active on defense in the spring game - well, almost no one, but we will get to the other standout in a minute - than Innis; whether it was covering receivers, standing up running backs, or pressuring the QBs, Gaines was all over the field in a stripped down version of TCU Football last spring. At 6’2” and 201 pounds, he is basically the prototype strong safety in the 4-2-5, and when you couple those measurables with his exceptional speed and quickness, he has a chance to terrorize opponents. Gaines gets side to side in a hurry and has really fluid hips, enabling him to change directions on a dime. He has long arms and a knack for timing, which means he should be a team leader in PBUs this year. He has a long of competition - getting snaps at strong safety will mean displacing junior Ridwan Issahaku, who was really solid last year when filling in for an injured Denzel Johnson, and holding off intriguing freshman Lakendrick Van Zandt, a freak of an athlete who GP is going to have to find a place for sooner rather than later.
All of that being said, I really like Innis Gaines in the secondary, and he’s my number one breakout candidate for the season. Keep your eye on #6.
Ben Banogu (DE): It’s not even September yet, and already the defensive line looks very little like we expected it to when the calendar turned to August. With James McFarland, Aaron Curry, and Josh Carraway graduating, and Tipa Galeai being kicked off the team last spring, there were already plenty of holes to fill. But add in the season-ending injury to Brandon Bowen and the surprise transfer of Isaiah Chambers, and suddenly a position of strength feels awfully thin.
Enter: Ben Banogu.
A transfer from Louisiana-Monroe, Banogu redshirted his first season for the Warhawks before spending his freshman year terrorizing Sun Belt opponents to the tune of 5.0 sacks and 14.5 TFLs. Banogu then sacrificed his sophomore year to transfer to TCU, leaving him with two seasons left with the Frogs. At 6’4” and 245 pounds, he sure does look the part of a GP pass-rusher, and could well be another diamond in the rough identified by TCU’s head coach before becoming a household name. Banogu earned the starting nod out of fall camp, beating out L.J. Collier, and that pair, along with Ty Summers and Mat Boesen on the other side, form a strong quartet of of big, athletic dudes that can get in the backfield in a hurry. Health is going to be key for the defensive line, which is really good but not really deep.
Corey Bethley (DT): We have heard an awful lot about Corey Bethley over the last few weeks, and with the aforementioned attrition, it seemed he was primed to play a pivotal role early this season. But when the depth chart was released for game one, Bethley had fallen to third string.
Gary Patterson is a master motivator, and one of his favorite tactics is to demote a future star or promote a hard worker to send a message. Ross Blacklock is going to be a beast - it doesn’t take more than a cursory glance of the kid to realize that. But, maybe there were some ego/work-ethic issues for a young kid that probably never had to go 100% against high school competition, and he hadn’t quite figured out how to turn the hydrant on at full blast after redshirting his first year Bethley is super talented as well, but as a true freshman, might have more to learn. But he clearly showed GP something that had him elevating Bethley over Blacklock, even if it was temporary.
It appears that neither Bethley nor fellow true freshman George Ellis are in line for a redshirt year of their own, as both made the three-deep. And with how much GP likes to rotate his line in the name of freshness, both could see significant snaps. Add in the fact that Collier is likely to see significant time at DE, and Bethley especially should have the chance to make himself known this fall.
Lucas Gravelle (SN): Okay, you’re getting a bonus sixth breakout candidate, but it’s all in the name of getting you to stop asking about the TCU kicking game.
The Frogs don’t have one kicker, they have three, which could very well mean they don’t have any. Three sophomores, Ritchie, Jonathan Song, and Cole Bunce are all neck and neck to be the starting kicking come Saturday. Song is the most highly touted of the three, but has been dealing with injuries for the better part of to years; Bunce was the best of the bunch coming out of spring, but after being primarily the kick-off specialist a year ago, has yet to try a field goal in a game; meanwhile, Ritchie, a former Arkansas walk-on, has come into camp in August and gotten most of the reps and most of the attention - though his leg is far from football shape.
So why are we talking about the snapper, and not the kickers? Because that’s who Gary Patterson is talking about, too. Gravelle, who is as journeyman as a collegiate player can get - from Erie CC to Washington State to TCU - has stabilized the special teams in a way that was sorely lacking a year ago. Not only is he one of the best snappers GP has had in his tenure by skill, but he’s an exceptional leader and a true difference maker to the unit as a whole. I’m not sure who TCU’s kicker will be this fall, but I have far more confidence in that unit in 2017 than I did in 2016 due to the presence of Lucas Gravelle. He will make a notable difference for the Frogs.