It hasn’t been an easy three years for TCU Football.
After a stretch of three out of four seasons that could have easily ended in playoff berths — under the soon to be new system at least — years of 7-6, 5-7, and 6-4 don’t feel all that great. And when you’re a program that had only had four seasons of fewer than eight wins between 2001-2015, having four in the last five feels pretty ominous.
But Gary Patterson isn’t worried about a hot seat or a poor recent record, he’s worried about getting his team ready for what’s next — and doing so with a returning quarterback at full health and with a full offseason for the first time since their last double-digit win campaign. “It will be the first time we have had a returning quarterback back since 2017,” Patterson said at Big 12 Media Days Wednesday. “People don’t really understand what Max (Duggan) went through a year ago. You’re only a freshman, you’re going to go in the spring — you don’t have spring — then you didn’t get an opportunity to also throw in the summer with your teammates. And then he had his condition and they basically didn’t let him do anything until a week before we played against Iowa State.”
We have heard this refrain a lot over the last year — Max wasn’t ready and wasn’t given enough opportunity to get ready. That excuse, as valid as it was, has no place in 2021, as — for the first time — TCU’s junior quarterback had a full spring, a full summer, and is looking toward a full fall. He is entrenched as the starter, and barring injury (please god no), will take every meaningful snap for the Horned Frogs this fall. Though there are tactical issues to work through — namely in the passing game — where Duggan has really raised his level is in his leadership. Representing his team at Big 12 Media Days, alongside defensive star Ochaun Mathis, Duggan carried himself like QB1: confident but humble, composed and deferential, direct and hopeful if not brazen. Duggan talked about how much “everybody loves to be around each other” and the energy a more “normal” season brings. “Getting the team and coaching staff back together brings out that energy.” He knows his weaknesses: “I want to become an all-around better player. I struggled passing the ball last year,” and his strengths: “I want to be that coach out there; that figure that our guys can go to and look to. They’re going to look toward you.” And he knows who he needs to be: “you want to be that leader that they rely on.” Already an emotional leader on the field, if Duggan can raise his level of play and his command of the locker room off of it, TCU might have a chance this fall.
But it’s not just Duggan — time and time again, we have heard how much this group likes each other in the last several months. A team that struggled with chemistry and guys unhappy in their roles got a healthy dose of addition by subtraction over the last six or so weeks of the 2020 season, and played their way into bowl eligibility while building a foundation for what comes next. “I did an interview the other day where I said it was one of the better chemistry teams that we’ve had in a long time,” Patterson said Wednesday, and went on to reference a comparison to the Andy Dalton era, a time when the team was in lock step in and out of season. “Our group has had great chemistry, and I’ll give you a great example. Usually in May when we get done with finals, guys will leave for a couple of weeks, but 90 percent of them didn’t. They stayed on their own, lift, ran. So, you can tell where they are at, what they are doing.”
Chemistry isn’t going to get the job done on its own, especially when you’re looking up to stacked programs in Norman and Ames to name a few. But there is a quiet confidence around the program these days, one that hasn’t been felt for several years. Patterson won’t make big sweeping promises, but you can tell he really likes this group. And believes in them.
When Patterson knows, he knows — and it certainly feels like he knows something. Now we wait and see if the rest of the world gets let in on the secret.