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2017 TCU Football Preview: The Defense

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GP hasn’t had a dominant defense since 2014. Can the Frogs return to their menacing ways this fall?

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Texas Christian Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The days of the attacking 4-2-5 seem long ago lost, as the TCU Defense has fallen from it’s highest points with the insertion of the Frogs into the high-flying, high-scoring, Big 12. The Frogs have been one of the best defenses in the country since Gary Patterson first took the helm, but there is the impression that he, and they, haven’t adjusted to the pace and level of the power five conference.

Before we take a look at the prospects for 2017, let’s go back in time.

In 2012, TCU’s first year in the Big 12, the Frogs led the conference in rushing defense (105.4 yards per game), were fourth in pass defense (218.5 yards per game), were second in scoring defense (22.6 points per game), and first in total defense (323.9 yards per game). They were fourth in turnover margin, forcing 11 fumbles and picking off 21 passes for a +3 ratio. With mostly Mountain West players, the Frogs more than held their own in their first year as a member of the Big 12, as teams struggled to figure out the 4-2-5. Also notable, TCU led the B12 in time of possession at 32:44 per game.

A year later, in 2013 - TCU’s worst year by record in the conference - the Frogs remained at the top of the food chain in rushing defense (130.8 ypg), fell to sixth in pass defense (225.6 ypg), fifth in scoring defense (25.2 ppg), but stayed at second in total defense (356.4 ypg) in what was a very rough year for the conference as a whole. The Frogs fell to eighth in turnover margin (-2) and fourth in time of possession (30:23) as the offense became detrimental to their success.

Enter 2014, and a wholesale change of philosophy. Despite an offensive strategy that revolved around speed, the Frogs jumped back up to second in TOP, holding the ball for 30:37 a game. The defense stacked with ball-hawks, playmakers, and general disrupters, forced 40 turnovers, and an offense led by Trevone Boykin, Josh Doctson, and Aaron Green only gave it away 22 times, leading to a staggering +18 margin. The Frogs were second in scoring offense and first in scoring defense, surrendering just 19 points per game, while holding opponents to just 108.8 yards per game on the ground (second) and 233 yards through the air (fourth). The Frogs were #1 in the conference in total defense yet again, as well.

An injury plagued 2015 saw the Frogs fall off across the board, with passing defense falling to second, scoring defense falling to third, total defense to fourth, and rushing defense to fifth. The turnover margin plummeted as well, as the Frogs forced less than half what they did the previous year, 19, and turned it over 19 time as well. 2016 saw TCU struggle yet again, as the offense found itself stagnant for most of the year, the defense suffered. Fourth in rushing defense, fourth in pass defense, fourth in scoring defense, yet second in total defense. The Frogs has their first negative turnover margin, as they went without an interception for several games, finishing with just eight on the year, to go with 16 total TOs forced to 20 committed. Not ideal.

So what does all that tell us heading into 2017? It reminds us, that despite the recent struggles, the TCU Defense has remained at or near the top of the Big 12, and continues to put the Frogs in position to win. If the offense can hold on to the football and put 28-30 points on the board per game, minimum - which should be easy enough to do - TCU should win a lot of games in 2017.

Defensive Line:

If there is an area of concern for GP’s defense in 2017, it’s the defensive line. Not for lack of talent, but lack of depth. After losing Tipa Galiea to disciplinary issues, Brandon Bowen to injury, and Isaiah Chambers to transfer, the Frogs are very thin up front. Redshirt freshman Ross Blacklock will be expected to shoulder a significant load - and should have little issue doing so, dude is MASSIVE - and true freshmen Corey Bethley and George Ellis III will also be called upon to play significant snaps. Senior Chris Bradley is the elder statesman of the unit, and will need to be both a playmaker and a leader up front. On the end, Mat Boesen should be more than a third down pass-rush specialist in his final year on campus, while juniors Ty Summers and Ben Banogu transition into big roles - for Summers, a completely new one. LJ Collier is the wild card, as the junior could vacillate between DT and DE depending on the matchup.

You can read our in-depth DL preview here.

Linebackers:

If the D-Line is the most worrisome group, the linebackers are the most intriguing. After the dominance of Paul Dawson and Marcus Mallet, the Frogs fell on hard times, as injuries and attrition depleted what was once TCU’s strongest defensive unit. In 2015, it was literally a revolving door, before a former high school QB and former safety took over the roles and became 100+ tackle per season players. Those two remain - junior Ty Summers and senior Travin Howard - and Howard is locked in at the SLB. But Summers is, at least temporarily, being called upon to stabilize the line, made possible by the emergence of talented junior Arico Evans. Evans is the classic late-bloomer, a 6’2”, 215 pound former quarterback (yup, another one) who projected as a safety at the collegiate level. Though he’s played in 20 games in his first two years on campus, he has yet to start one - but that appears poised to change Saturday. Evans beat out one time starter Montrel Wilson and Alec Dunham, while Howard starts ahead of a pair of seniors, the talented but oft-injured Sammy Douglas and Garrett Kaufman. Notably absent from the three-deep is talented juco transfer Alex Bush, despite GP speaking highly of him earlier in camp. Of course, he has gotten some reps at defensive end, too, so it might just be a matter of figuring out where he fits, best. Ultimately, for the first time in a long time, the Frogs just have a lot of options in the middle of the D.

“Sammy Douglas has had the best camp he’s ever had,” Patterson said. “Alec Dunham and Alex Bush have played well too, and with the depth at linebacker, that’s given us the ability to move Ty Summers down to give us some speed on the edges at defensive end, which means you don’t need as good of coverage guys in the secondary if the quarterback doesn’t have any time.”

Our in-depth linebacker preview can be checked out here.

Secondary:

This is as experienced as the back end of the D has been in a while, as the secondary sports a pair of seniors and trio of juniors on the first string, with a combined 80 starts between them. Both of those stats have a caveat about them, though, as the final CB slot will go to either junior Julius Lewis or sophomore Jeff Gladney. Safeties Nick Orr, Niko Small, and Ridwan Issahaku form a versatile and multiple look deep, while the corners - Gladney/Lewis and senior Ranthony Texada can both lock down their side of the field when called upon. A healthy Texada completely changes the strength of this unit as a whole - he is as good a shutdown corner as you will find in the conference, and can be a big time playmaker and ball hawk. Small and Orr really came on late a season ago; after moving around a lot in their first two seasons as injuries piled up and coaches tried to find their strengths, they settled into the free and weak safeties roles and solidified the secondary. The battle between Issahaku and Innis Gaines will likely stretch into the season; Gaines has been impressive all off-season, but got banged up in camp and thus, slid behind Issahaku. Vernon Scott, a super-athletic sophomore with good size and incredible reach, will get a lot of reps behind Orr. Two true freshmen also make the rotation, in Garrett Wallow (who eventually projects to linebacker, but has as high a football IQ as anyone on the team) and Kerry Johnson (a late signing who had to clear some academic issues but looks like a future superstar for TCU).

The entire secondary preview can be checked out here.

Five Keys:

  1. Turnovers: When TCU is at their best, they are ballhawking nightmares. The Frogs need to force at least 28 turnovers in 2017 and have at least a +5 margin to be successful.
  2. QB Pressure: The Frogs struggled to make plays in the backfield early last season, putting a ton of pressure on what was then a very young secondary to hold on to a slough of talented receivers for far too long. Don’t give the passers time, and all of a sudden you have a lock-down back end.
  3. Stop the Run: As we explored earlier, TCU has generally been really good against the run, a hallmark of GP’s 4-2-5. Getting back to that will be a big difference maker in 2017, as the Frogs look to solidify the trenches and own the front lines. The sheer size of the defensive line helps in that regard, as three rotation players go above 300 pounds, and the unit as a whole is just a lot better. Summers (242) and Banogu (245) will have to prove they can hold up on the ends.
  4. Musical Chairs: Injuries have been such a significant issue over the past two years, as GP has rarely been able to roll out the same starting lineup for more than a game at a time. Getting some of the key players healthy, and keeping them there, allowing them to gain experience and chemistry, could be the biggest key to getting back to dominance.
  5. Swagger: That 2014 team wasn’t just super talented, but they had a certain confidence about them and a swagger that bled into their play. The 4-2-5 is at its best when the players have the knowledge and confidence to take chances - when guys like Kevin White, Paul Dawson, Sam Carter, Derrick Kindred, et al know what the offensive is going to do before they do. Youth, inexperience, and playbook deficiencies cost TCU a lot the past two years, but a lot of those issues have been addressed or aged out, and there shouldn’t be near as much looking back to the sideline for help this season. If the players on the field can handle the adjustments and audibles, they’ll make a lot more plays. They have the skill, they should have the knowledge, now they just need the confidence to go out and do the job.