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No Fly Zone: Previewing the TCU Secondary

Jeff Gladney and Innis Gaines lead a unit that should be as strong as ever.

TCU Football vs Oklahoma State | Fort Worth, TX | November 24, 2018
TCU Football vs Oklahoma State | Fort Worth, TX | November 24, 2018
Melissa Triebwasser

Playing defensive back in the modern Big 12 is a martyr’s task.

You’re going to get burned, there’s no question about it — the only question is if you can pick your spots, limit the damage, and strike back at just the right moment. Gary Patterson is a defensive savant, and his game-planning is legendary, but there’s only so much a coach can do and so much a correct coverage call can prevent a touchdown. When the game’s on the line, it comes down to the athletes on the field to stop Big 12 offenses, mano-a-mano against some of the best receivers and quarterbacks in the nation.

Luckily, TCU’s secondary should be as loaded as any in the country in 2019.

The Horned Frogs return both starting corners in Jeff Gladney — a Thorpe Award Watch List and preseason All-Big 12 member — and Julius Lewis, and Innis Gaines returns at strong safety. TCU will have to replace starting weak safety Niko Small and free safety Ridwan Issahaku, both of whom were standouts, but there’s talent there to take those spots.

Here’s the lineup in the most recent depth chart issued by TCU, in May.

2019 TCU Secondary Depth Chart

Julius Lewis (SR, 5-10, 180) Innis Gaines (SR, 6-2, 207) Trevon Moehrig (SO, 6-2, 208) Vernon Scott (SR, 6-2, 206) Jeff Gladney (SR, 6-0, 183)
Noah Daniels (SO, 6-0, 205) La'Kendrick Van Zandt (SO, 6-1, 206) Nook Bradford (FR, 5-11, 190) Ar'Darius Washington (RS FR, 5-8, 175) Tony Wallace JR, 5-11, 185)
Atanza Vongor (RS FR, 6-1, 200) Keenan Reed (SR, 5-11, 179)

The strength of the unit is undoubtedly in the cornerbacks. Jeff Gladney allowed the lowest passing rating of any Big 12 cornerback last year (49.9) and finished the season with 41 tackles, a sack, two picks and a forced fumble. As with most shutdown corners, his stats seem low, but that’s because opposing offenses just don’t throw to his side of the field.

Julius Lewis came into his own last season, and trailed only Gladney in the Big 12 by allowing only one reception every 15.4 snaps in coverage. He had 30 tackles and two picks in 2018. Lewis is slightly undersized, but he’s skilled enough to make up for it.

Daniels played in all 13 games as a redshirt freshman last season, and he should get more experience learning under Lewis and Gladney. Against Ohio State, he had four solo tackles and a pass breakup, so he’s shown flashes of talent. Wallace comes in as a JuCo transfer from Independence Community College in Nevada, and was a three-star recruit.

Innis Gaines is the lone returning starter at safety, but he missed the last half of the 2018 season with injury. He’s fully healthy now, and made an appearance at Big 12 Media Days. In just six games, he had 31 tackles, 6.5 of which were for a loss. He’s as big a threat in run-stopping as he is in pass defense, and has the potential to be an unholy terror against opposing offenses in 2019.

La’Kendrick Van Zandt is an intriguing prospect, and one with the talent to be a star as his career progresses. He didn’t play that often last year, but he came out of high school as the No. 4 athlete in Texas according to 247Sports. Atanza Vongor also has oodles of potential (and a cool name to boot). He was injured last year and redshirted as a result, but was the No. 16 safety in the nation coming out of high school, and is a big body.

Trevon Moehrig moves in to the starter spot this year after seeing action in 2018. At Media Days, Patterson said Moehrig “had to play as a true freshman last year (and) to be honest was probably not ready for all that.” He still managed to intercept a pass, and was named the Frogs’ MVP on special teams. Patterson said he’s “changed his body and his mentality,” which bodes well for 2019.

Nook Bradford is a true freshman coming out of Fork Union Military Academy, where he was ranked the nation’s No. 1 prep player. Keenan Reed spent the first two years of his career at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, and had a tackle in the Cheez-It Bowl last year, which makes him an integral part of TCU football lore.

At weak safety, Vernon Scott will take over for perennial starter Ridwan Issahaku. Scott started two games last season and had eight solo tackles against Texas. He’s a hard hitter, and another big frame at 6-2, 206.

Backing him up is Ar’Darius Washington, who played sparingly in four games last year, but kept his redshirt. He was the No. 5 safety coming out of Louisiana in high school.

The senior leadership at corner would be enough to make TCU’s secondary a strong unit. Add that to Gaines at strong safety and the as-yet-untapped talent at the other two safety spots, and the Horned Frog defense should be primed to have another outstanding season.