The sun was shining anew on TCU Football Wednesday morning as the Horned Frogs took the field for the first practice of the fall, one month from the season kickoff against the Colorado Buffaloes. While there remain big questions to be answered over the next four weeks, optimism is high - as are the expectations - for a team looking to build off the success of a season ago while moving past the way it ended. While it would be an overreaction to take anything too significant away from this initial glimpse of the 2023 squad in action, some of the off-season's biggest questions began the process of being answered. So what did we see through the first four practices?
Cordale Russell might be that dude
Despite donning the red non-contact jersey as he works back to full speed after a collarbone injury suffered in the spring, TCU’s top rated true freshman was a standout from day 1, looking strong in drills and making plays during 7-on-7 portions. His teammates all had high praise, JP Richardson called him a “freak of nature, you don’t come across guys like him, just from an athletic ability. He’s hungry, he wants it, he works hard.” Coach Dykes took notice as well, “He didn’t seem like a freshman to me, he didn’t seem rattled, it didn’t seem too big for him. He made more plays today than some young receivers have made for us in the past. He just looks like he belongs.”
Freshman WR Cordale Russell still in the red non-contact jersey, but out here working pic.twitter.com/c7Ove1nVoK— Frogs O’ War (@FrogsOWar) August 2, 2023
Who will fill the wide receiver rotation? Options abound
With the departure of Quentin Johnston, Taye Barber, Derius Davis, and more from the pass catcher room, the Frogs had some big shoes to fill, but it appears TCU has the talent in place to keep pace. Russell wasn’t the only one to stand out in practice: Savion Williams returns and looks primed to hold a starting role on the outside
JP Richardson continues to show a rapport with Chandler Morris, Blake Nowell made multiple sure-handed snags, Jaylon Robinson & JoJo Earle flashed the speed and shiftiness of playmakers, Arkansas transfer Warren Thompson was a pleasant surprise with his size and sure hands, and DJ Allen showed why he was one of the top prizes from the 2022 recruiting class. On Allen’s performance Wednesday, Coach Dykes “thought he made a big jump just to today from what I saw in spring. You can tell he is more comfortable and confident”
2nd year WR DJ Allen running routes pic.twitter.com/ATjru9vF6a— Frogs O’ War (@FrogsOWar) August 5, 2023
Josh Newton has still got that dog in him
Simply put, Newton was the best player on the field this week. His intensity and leadership stands out in every rep, and when he’s not going 110% on the field he’s coaching up his teammates between reps. Fellow DB Mark Perry had big praise for Newton, “Fig just has a different mentality. He’s that guy that gets us all going, not only the secondary, but the defense as a whole. He’s very vocal, very serious about what he does; that sets him apart from a lot of corners in the country.” During the 11-v-11 portion on Friday, Newton had a pass breakup on an attempt to Warren Thompson and followed it up with a bone-jarring hit stick at the line of scrimmage that sent Major Everhart’s helmet flying. The pre-season All-American deserves all the praise that will continue to be showered his way, and he’s already showing it won’t change his effort or work ethic.
Who will be Newton’s running mate?
In 2022, having Newton on the other side of the field helped propel Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson to the Thorpe Award. With THT now in the NFL, the CB2 spot is one of the biggest holes to fill. Sonny Dykes likes his options and is excited for the camp competition, saying “there’ll be three or four guys competing for that spot.” The early top candidates are newcomers Avery Helm (Florida transfer) and Channing Canada (JUCO transfer) who both showed really smooth athleticism and technique in drills and physicality in competition with receivers. Helm ran with the Ones this week, while Canada was paired with fellow JUCO transfer Mason White on the second team unit.
Cornerback Avery Helm working shed and wrap up pic.twitter.com/reRH0LGEYe— Miles Perry (@CoachMilesPerry) August 5, 2023
Who starts on the Offensive & Defensive Lines?
The Horned Frogs took big personnel hits to the trenches on both sides of the ball, losing starters at all three interior spots on the O-Line and Dylan Horton and many rotational depth pieces on the D-Line. How those roles are filled will say a lot about how the 2023 season will go for TCU. Without full pads it is difficult to evaluate the big men, but in drills some guys stood out. Newcomers Willis Patrick (JUCO transfer) and Coltin Deery (Maryland transfer) each got opportunities at Center & Guard and both made a positive impression. Deery arrived after spring practice, so these were his first practices with the Frogs and Coach Dykes is excited for his future, “He’s a big body, a blue collar football player, which I like. Glad we have him and anxious to see how he progresses.” Overall, one of the biggest challenges the team experienced this week was with the Center-Quarterback exchange, both from under center and in the shotgun. Coach Dykes acknowledged this is something that can happen early in camp as many different players are rotating through the snapping role, but perhaps an item to watch as camp continues.
On the defensive side, Damonic Williams is likely a settled starter in the middle; he dominated the line of scrimmage with the starting defense on Friday, but also worked at D-End on Saturday. The other two starting spots and rotational snaps are up for grabs through camp competition. Redshirt freshman Paul Oyewale has been filling one of those outside spots with the first team and says he’s up to 274 pounds, up 14 pounds from his 2022 list weight. Freshman Markis Deal looked the part with a renewed energy and explosiveness to impress Coach Dykes, “Markis really transformed his body over the summer. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. He’s got great size and that snap you want to see...I was very impressed with the way he started.” While perhaps no one from this unity truly wowed in this limited look, I was also impressed with the motor and athleticism of Tymon Mitchell & Caleb Fox during drills, they both will be key contributors regardless of whether they jump to the top line of the depth chart.
Freshman DL Markis Deal getting after it: pic.twitter.com/676g2Sw19U— S. Johnson (@StevenMJohnson_) August 2, 2023
Chandler Morris is QB1
I understand there are many of Josh Hoover fans here, he’s a good player who will surely be successful if his name is called, but Morris is commanding this offense - an offense that he describes as perfectly fitting his skill set. While QB controversy drives conversation, don’t expect an all-out camp battle like Morris won over eventual Davey O’Brien winner Max Duggan last fall. Chandler continues to receive praise from his teammates and the coaching staff, both for his performance in the offense and his leadership in driving the team for success throughout the offseason. JP Richardson explaining why the offense will be special, “We got a heck of a quarterback. Chandler’s spinning it really well. He’s very accurate.”
How Kendal Briles is building TCU's offense around Chandler Morris: https://t.co/AXZwwHX3lz— S. Johnson (@StevenMJohnson_) August 4, 2023
Who will be the primary ballcarrier?
With Kendre Miller & Emari Demercado both in the NFL, the Horned Frogs have a massive production loss in the backfield, but that does not mean that the cupboard is bare. Emani Bailey returns and has been splitting first team reps with Alabama transfer Trey Sanders. It’s another spot where Sonny Dykes acknowledges the camp battle that is underway to find out who the top players will be, “There’s going to be good competition, it’ll be interesting to see who rises there.” Bailey & Sanders have both shown bursts of power, speed, and vision when called upon during this first week. There may be more two-back sets worked in this season, along with getting speedy playmakers involved from the receiver spots on sweeps or misdirections. True freshman Cam Cook has also impressed since arriving on campus, with Sonny Dykes calling him out during Big 12 Media Days, “He’s got great speed and a great work ethic...I’m really excited for him.”