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TCU Football Position Preview: Linebackers

Travin Howard might be gone, but the Frogs are still loaded at the most important position in Gary Patterson’s defense.

NCAA Football: Texas at Texas Christian
Ty Summers is returning for his senior year. Big 12 offenses, beware.
Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

The opening paragraphs of this linebacker preview highlighting the particular importance of the position for the Horned Frogs could be copy and pasted from years past, and you’d never know the difference.

Because at TCU, on the defensive side of the ball, the two men patrolling the middle of the field in Gary Pattersons’ 4-2-5 scheme remain the two most important players on the field for the Horned Frogs at any given point. That’s the way it’s been for a decade and more, and that’s the way it’ll be for the foreseeable future, until the day Patterson hangs up his visor and retires.

And throughout Patterson’s time at TCU, those linebackers have, for the most part, answered the call of duty. It’s no coincidence that some of the Frogs’ best seasons have come when the defense features exceptionally productive linebackers. Think Tank Carder in the Rose Bowl in 2011, or the criminally — feloniously, even — underrated Paul Dawson-Marcus Mallet combo in 2014.

The good news for TCU fans this year is that the Frogs have three good choices for two positions, and some decent talent deeper down the depth chart as well. The defensive line, featuring Big 12 Preseason DPOY Ben Banogu, will most likely get all the attention, and for good reason. But the linebacker spot will be as solid as ever for TCU in 2018.

Let’s take a look at what the Frogs have.

TCU Linebacker Depth Chart

Depth Chart Projection Name Height Weight Experience
Depth Chart Projection Name Height Weight Experience
Starter Ty Summers 6'2" 235 SR
Starter Jawuan Johnson 6'0" 218 SR
Sub Montrel Wilson 6'3" 228 JR
Sub Arico Evans 6'2" 206 SR
Sub Alec Dunham 6'1" 220 SR
Sub Jacoby Simpson 6'0" 225 FR

The first thing that jumps off the page is the experience level. TCU has four seniors and a junior that could receive playing time this season, including grad transfer Jawuan Johnson from Northern Illinois. All of that experience will pay dividends for the Frogs in 2018.

Summers, Johnson and Wilson all probably deserve a starting spot — but this is a 4-2-5 defense, after all, not a 4-3. For reasons I’ll delve into below, Summers and Johnson will most likely be your starting linebackers this year.

Starter: Ty Summers

Summers earned this starting spot on November 27, 2015, when he put up a school record 23 tackles in a driving monsoon against Baylor. He was just a freshman in that game, mind you. And with two more seasons under his belt, he’s done nothing but live up to the high expectations that double-overtime spectacle set out for him. He has 138 solo tackles and 271 total tackles as a Horned Frog and earned a Second Team All-Big 12 selection in 2016.

(As an aside: I was a student during that Baylor game but watched it on TV at my cousin’s wedding rehearsal dinner. I’m still mad I wasn’t in the stands — blame my Texas Tech fan cousins for scheduling a wedding during football season. It’s not like they ever have anything to play for in late November, anyway.)

This season, Summers is on the preseason watch list for the Bednarik Award, given to the best defender in college football. He’s a lock for one of the starting spots at linebacker for TCU.

Starter: Jawuan Johnson

Johnson transferred into TCU from Northern Illinois this offseason and could easily step right into a starting role. He was third-team All-MAC in 2017, which doesn’t exactly scream “Big 12 starter,” but that doesn’t tell the full story. Pro Football Focus rated him as the best linebacker in the nation last year, and he’s excellent in pass coverage, tallying five interceptions (two of which he ran back for touchdowns). He’s slightly undersized at 6’0”, but he can still lay a hit on someone — Johnson led the MAC with five forced fumbles in 2017.

He’ll only have one year at TCU, and Patterson won’t want to waste his talent by using him in a substitute role. Johnson should start in his lone season with the Frogs and play the majority of passing downs.

Sub: Montrel Wilson

Wilson had a very successful season as a freshman in 2015, racking up 61 tackles and starting seven games. He suffered an injury that kept him out for the latter half of 2016 and was still returning to form in 2017. He’s the biggest of all TCU linebackers at 6’3”, and his skill is undeniable.

If Johnson hadn’t transferred in, Wilson would be the favorite to start alongside Summers. But his injury history will most likely relegate Wilson to a first-man-off-the-bench role. He was able to receive a medical redshirt in 2016, meaning he’ll still have one more year with the Frogs after this upcoming season. He’ll be a starter next year, but for now, he’ll have to continue to bide his time.

Sub: Arico Evans

Evans played in all 13 games in 2017 with two starts. Against Jackson State, he took back a fumble for a touchdown, and he had at least one tackle in every game of the season. (All of these stats are culled from the invaluable database, FYI.)

He’s a solid backup that can come in during spot duty and relieve Summers and Johnson without allowing big plays. Evans won’t start if everyone stays healthy, but the linebacking corps needs him in the rotation.

Sub: Alec Dunham

Dunham has spent most of his time with TCU on special teams. Of his eight tackles last year, five came with the special teams unit. If the Frogs play a hurry-up team (and where would you ever find one of those in the Big 12), Dunham can come in for a play or two and give the starters at linebacker a breather.

Sub: Jacoby Simpson

If Patterson wants to start working in younger players at linebacker as the season progresses, Simpson is the likely first choice. He was the No. 3 rated inside linebacker in Texas according to 247Sports in 2018 and he brings a stout presence at 6’0”, 225 pounds. He might only see the field in mop-up duty, but pay attention when he does. He’ll most likely be a starter on down the road.

The Verdict:

Summers, Johnson and Wilson will have this unit humming. Travin Howard isn’t walking through that door, but the players that are will do just fine.