During his news conference on National Signing Day three weeks ago, TCU coach Gary Patterson said he thinks the swagger is back a little bit.Although he was happy with the Horned Frogs recruiting class that included three four-star athletes, truth be told, the likely origin of the swagger he was referring to wears jersey Nos. 4 and 32.The return of quarterback Casey Pachall and running back Waymon James to the practice field Friday are reasons Nos. 1 and 2 why TCU begins its spring practice with an extra pep in its step.Patterson said Thursday that despite a roster still back-loaded with freshmen and sophomores, his team is more experienced than it has been in three seasons.Were just older, he said. The last two years weve been really, really young. Its hard to have any swagger when youre trying to figure out where youre supposed to be going.The Frogs 15 spring practices, beginning at 4 p.m. Friday and concluding April 6, mark the return of Pachall, who returns to the team after leaving school in October to seek substance abuse counseling. He has been back with the team since school resumed in mid-January.James, who missed most of last season after a knee injury in the Frogs second game, wont be as active this March while he fully recovers, but his presence is a welcome return to the team.Others, including tight end Stephen Bryant and offensive lineman Michael Thompson, whose seasons were also cut short by injury, are back and atop the depth chart to start the spring.The convergence of the older, more experienced players returning, with the invaluable playing time forced upon a nation-leading 17 freshmen who saw game action in 2012, should not only help the Frogs regain their swagger after a 7-6 season but also give Patterson and his coaches more depth-chart options by the time the 2013 season begins Aug. 31 against LSU at Cowboys Stadium.No one would have thought a year ago that wed have to play 17 freshmen, Patterson said. I think there were some unknowns a year ago about our football team. And now I think they see they can compete on a week-to-week basis. ... I think the swagger is back a little bit and what were used to winning-wise. Ive really been excited about the off-season. I think it makes a big difference knowing who they have to play. We just need to grow up.Five storylinesPachalls returnRedshirt freshman Trevone Boykin took over for Casey Pachall in the fifth game last fall and performed admirably despite missing his leading rusher (Waymon James) and dealing with an at-times beat-up offensive line. Pachall, who leads all active FBS quarterbacks with a 163.1 career efficiency rating, will have to re-earn his starting job this spring through his play on the field and his behavior off of it.Linebacker battleThe biggest question mark entering spring camp is linebacker. Aledo ex Joel Hasley, who started with the now-graduated Kenny Cain last season, remains atop the depth chart with Marcus Mallet. Former safety Johnathan Anderson has moved to linebacker to help with depth and could battle for a starting job, along with Paul Dawson. All four of them are juniors, leaving the bulk of the depth in the hands of inexperienced freshmen and sophomores, including incoming freshmen Sammy Douglas (Arlington High), Paul Whitmill and Dac Shaw, who dont arrive on campus until June. The thing we look for is guys who can make plays, that are explosive, aggressive and can do it, Patterson said. Sammy falls into that category, along with Paul Whitmill and also Dac Shaw.Replacing StanslyStansly Mapongas early departure for the NFL Draft moves Aledo ex and senior Jon Koontz into the top spot at left defensive end. But sophomores Josh Carraway and James McFarland will challenge him deep into August. Both impressed coaches as freshmen in limited action. Right end Devonte Fields, the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year from Arlington Martin, provides an anchor on the defensive line.Running back raceWaymon James return from injury is not the only addition to the backfield. Aaron Green had to watch from the sidelines in 2012 because of NCAA rules after his transfer from Nebraska. While James waits to fully recover from knee surgery this spring, Green will have a chance to improve his stock against sophomore B.J. Catalon, who impressed as a freshman in 2012. Jordan Moore, who was injured before the bowl game after moving to fullback, will also likely not see a lot of physical action this spring. Newcomers, including Kyle Hicks, a four-star running back from Arlington Martin, and Trevorris Johnson will provide depth this summer. Youll end up with six tailbacks in the fall, but right now you have three so well have to be smart, Patterson said.New faces, new namesThree recruits enrolled early Springtown tight end Bryson Burtnett, Temple quarterback Zach Allen and Milton (Ga.) High School offensive tackle Eason Fromayan but the emergence of available players, including transfers such as Green and receivers JaJuan Story and Josh Doctson, who had to sit out last season, will be a big lift for the Frogs overall depth. Story transferred from Florida while Doctson, a Mansfield Legacy graduate, transferred from Wyoming. Both will help fill the void left with Josh Boyces early departure for the NFL Draft.
Stefan Stevenson, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @FollowtheFrogs