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2017 TCU Position Preview: Defensive Backs

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The 4-2-5 lives and dies with the strength of the DBs; does GP have the horses in the back end to get the job done?

Kansas State v TCU Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

TCU has had some outstanding defensive players come through their program, highlighted by some special defensive backs.

Overview:

Post-Spring LB Depth Chart

DB Depth CB 1 CB 2 FS SS WS
DB Depth CB 1 CB 2 FS SS WS
1st String Ranthony Texada Julius Lewis Niko Small Issahaku, Ridwan Nick Orr
2nd String Noah Daniels Jeff Gladney Markell Simmons Innis Gaines Vernon Scott

The Starters:

Ranthony Texada is the best CB in the Big 12 - come at me, bro. Finally fully healthy after the devastating knee injury that cost him most of 2015 and kept him from full effectiveness until mid-way through last year. But Texada is back for his senior season with a chip on his shoulder and the opportunity to vault himself into the middle rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft.

Opposite Texada on opening night will be some combination of Julius Lewis and/or Jeff Gladney - unless intriguing young talent Noah Daniels is able to unseat them. Lewis earned Frog fans’ favor last season when he bypassed an injury-earned redshirt year to come back off of an achilles injury to play the second half of the schedule. Gladney started eight games as a redshirt freshman and definitely has the tools to be great; at 6’ tall with good speed and solid instincts, he racked up 46 tackles and 6 passes defensed in his first action on the field.

At safety, the dynamic duo of Niko Small and Nick Orr return, two of the most underrated players in the conference. Small burst onto the scene as a sophomore, starting 12 games at free safety. He led TCU with nine PBUs and had a pair of interceptions, including the Frogs’ first of the season against SMU. Orr was named a second-team All Big 12 player after a junior campaign that saw him start all 13 games at safety after splitting time before safety and corner in his sophomore year. The strong safety position is probably the most interesting coming out of spring ball; junior Ridwan Issahaku is listed at starter with juco transfer Markell Simmons behind him. Watch for those two to battle it out throughout fall camp - Issahaku has seven career starts and five career PBUs, but the 6’1”, 200 pound Simmons should challenge him for SS1. Simmons played in 11 games a season ago as he worked to learn the ins and outs of GP’s complicated D - with another year in the playbook under his belt, he should improve in 2017.

The Depth:

Seven players are listed as cornerbacks, two more as defensive backs, and ten more as safeties. As we have seen in the past several seasons, those roles can be interchangeable as needed for Gary Patterson’s D, and 2017 shouldn’t be any different - unless TCU stays injury free in the secondary.

I am really high on sophomore Innis Gaines, a 6’2” safety who was all over the field in a good way in the Frogs’ spring game. He showed excellent instinct in the stripped down D, with solid coverage skills and a good presence in the backfield. He looks like the perfect hybrid coverage back/hard-hitter/blitzer that GP always seems to have in TCU’s best years. Tony James had an up and down 2016, but knows the defense and can play multiple positions. Vernon Scott is another player who should take a leap in 2017; the 6’2” sophomore out of Mansfield was one of my favorite signings a year ago, and after playing in 11 games during the 2016 campaign but racking up few stats, he should have more of an imbpact this fall.

Also back, for what seems like his seventh year, is senior Michael Downing, a player who absolutely maximizes every ounce of his ability and wins the award for hustle and grit. Downing has often drawn fan’s ire, but he’s a great leader, a hard worker, and a dependable player that knows every position on the field and contributes on special teams. Plus - he’s one of the greatest people you’ll ever meet.

The Newcomers:

I am too hyped about the freshmen pair of Noah Daniels and Michael Onyemaobi, a couple kids who have a chance to be the next greats in the TCU D. Mike O was a late signee, brought over with the help of the addition of Sonny Dykes to the TCU staff - the one-time Cal commit flipped to follow his would-be coach. The two are both speedsters - Onyemaobi’s 4.53 40 puts him in elite company at safety, and Daniels simply flies all over the field with 4.3 speed. If both aren’t playing significant roles by season’s end, I will be shocked.

Another name to know is Garrett Wallow, a now safety that is expected to transition to linebacker a season from now. Wallow was a gem out of Louisiana, a monster at 6’2” and 216 pounds that hits like a mack truck and has an exceptionally high football IQ. He might not stay in the defensive backfield for long, but he has a chance to make an impact there this year.

La’Kendrick Van Zandt is also listed at safety - the former high school running back makes the transition to full time defense, and has the prototypical size, along with plus speed, to become great in his new role. Rated the #3 athlete in the state, LVZ is a gifted talent, and should get up to playbook speed quickly. He might be a year away, but remember his name.

An unheralded late signing, freshman Kerry Johnson had some eligibility questions that scared some schools off. The typical Gary Patterson diamond in the rough was kept under wraps until his surprise commitment just ahead of NSD, which means he’s someone Frog fans should be very excited about. He’s another heady player that plays with patience and savvy, but isn’t afraid to stick his helmet in someone’s pads.

Transfer Keenan Reed (sophomore, Northeastern Oklahoma A&M) and walk-on Caleb Biggurs (freshman, Bishop Dunne, Dallas) round out what should be a solid group on the back end of the 4-2-5. Expect the unit as a whole to be much improved from 2016, and a far more ball-hawking unit. The Frogs live and die with turnovers forced, and the eight interceptions collected last year was far below expectations. They will more than double that number in 2017, leading the charge for a defense that will return to its glory days.