Gary Patterson loves to talk about paper tigers.
The head man of the Horned Frogs has seen it all in his 20+ years in Fort Worth, as he and his program crawled its way up from the WAC to the Big 12 over the course of his tenure. With the rise in prominence that came from dominating the Mountain West Conference, earning a spot in a Power Five Conference, and building facilities to rival the biggest and best programs in the land, doors have been opened to attracting players that wouldn’t have given TCU the time of day back when LT was setting rushing records left and right.
With the change in perception has come a change in recruiting style — well, to some degree — as the 2* and 3* after thought players that Patterson helped turn into NFL earners have given way to high three and four star guys that are deciding between TCU, Texas, Oklahoma, and Alabama — something that never would have seemed possible just a decade ago.
TCU still loses more of those battles than they win, but they have earned pledges of some key players in those situations — famously ripping a pair of wide receivers from Texas — Quentin Johnston — and Oklahoma — Jalen Reagor — recently, and getting the signature of a high level QB in Max Duggan and one of the most sought after defensive tackles in Ross Blacklock over the last few years.
But, up until last year, the Frogs had never had a five star player make it to campus, something that changed when Zach Evans — he of the “unusual” recruitment — shocked the college football world by signing with the Horned Frogs last summer, a left turn that absolutely no one saw coming up until the deal was done. Having broken through with a kid who was at one time the number one recruit in the country, Frog fans are desperate to see the next — and wondering why the best players in DFW are regularly choosing to take their talents elsewhere.
Since the Rose Bowl, TCU’s recruiting reach has changed dramatically; the recruiting class that ultimately won that program-defining game was ranked 58th nationally with an average rating of just .8099. The highest rated player was Clint Renfro — who would never take a snap for the football program but had a solid track career — while 2* prospects like Jimmy Young, Marshall Newhouse, and Jerry Hughes would go from afterthoughts to All Stars and enjoy professional success.
In 2012, just a season removed from that team and with the Big 12 invite secured, the Horned Frogs’ reeled in the fifth best class in their new conference and a top 30 group overall, increasing the average rating to .8619 and two four star recruits — Devonte Fields and Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
2014’s run to a shared Big 12 championship and within a whisker of the playoffs landed the strongest group to date: 22 enrollees, the Big 12’s third best class and the country’s 21st, with an average rating of .8825. Led by high four star running back Sewo Olonilua, the group featured eight players with a four star rating, including the aforementioned Blacklock and Austin Myers, who had a long career with TCU. But the remaining highly touted players — Isaiah Chambers, Brandon Bowen, Taj Williams, Tyree Horton, and Isaiah Graham — never lived up to their billing in Fort Worth, with Chambers, Horton, and Graham ultimately transferring. Seven of those 22 players have a chance to be on NFL rosters this fall — and only two came in as four star prospects.
The class of 2020 was the best yet by average rating: an impressive .8849 average and a top 25 class despite signing just 19 players. Evans was the best of the bunch — number two at his position and the #16 prospect overall in the class. The Frogs signed five four star prospects, winning key battles along the way: QJ picked TCU over Texas, Garrett Hayes had 22 offers, including three of the four other P5 schools in Texas, the Frogs got Patrick Jenkins and Bud Clark out of Louisiana and away from the Tigers, and someone drew Keontae Jenkins from the East Coast.
But that isn’t always good enough for fans who follow recruiting religiously.
In 2020, there were 32 five star prospects in the state of Texas. Of those 32 players, only four signed with Texas teams — two to A&M and one each to TCU and Texas. The top 14 players left the Lone Star State, with three going to Clemson and two each to Georgia and Ohio State. 2021 brought 34 in-state five star recruits: two stayed and the top 12 all left for greener pastures.
This isn’t just a TCU problem — it’s the new landscape.
Several years ago, as TCU began recruiting like a Power Five program after the success of 2014/2015, Gary Patterson spoke of “building a fence around the metroplex.” He doubled down on that philosophy in 2016, sending all nine assistant coaches to the 139 5A and 6A schools that reside in DWF over a one week period. It was certainly successful; Patterson has long had a great relationship with Texas High School Football coaches for both his honesty in the process and the way he treats players long after they graduate. Then Cedar Hill coach Joey McGuire — who later matriculated to Baylor — said “Coach Patterson talks about building a fence around the Metroplex. This puts nine fence posts in the ground.”
And that’s at the crux of it. While many programs chase stars, others covet them, and some collect them as easily as baseball cards, Patterson and the TCU Football coaching staff isn’t going to be swayed by the numbers on a website. Patterson is looking for fit — regardless of position — both in his system and in his program. The talent has to be there, sure, but for one of the smallest schools in major college football, you can’t bank on that alone.
I’ve listened to a lot of press conferences over the years, and heard questions about how GP recruits answered a million times by the man himself. Back in 2019, after struggling through a brutal 2018 season, you could see that Patterson wasn’t having it with the new way of recruiting. At Big 12 Media Days, he said as much. “A high-profile guy, if he’s really interested, then we’re going to recruit him. But if I have to babysit him through it, then I’m probably not going to recruit him. Because there are plenty of guys out there. You only have to get 5-7 guys in a class that can play anywhere, if you’ll just recruit good players for the rest of them, then you’re going to have a chance to be successful. You don’t recruit all chiefs, and that’s one of the secrets. I think we got away from it, to be honest with you, for a couple of years, and I’m trying to get back to my old ways.”
Heading into 2021, a no excuse season after back to back years full of them, the one thing I have heard over and over again from those within and around the program is how good the chemistry is. These guys genuinely like each other, there’s leadership in the locker room, and a clear hierarchy among the players — all of whom seem genuinely united in one goal: to win. After three disappointing seasons, but with last season’s late run the driving force, it’s put up or shut up for a group that has the talent to compete with the best the Big 12 has to offer. TCU has proven they can win with lesser rated players — and now they have a bunch of widely known good ones. Can they break through and get over the hump with talent that is getting closer and closer to Blue Chip status?