In his first comments since his best defensive player was suspended two games and he kicked out a reserve cornerback, TCU coach Gary Patterson was blunt in the assessment of his team:“When you have younger teams, you have more knuckleheads,” he told me in a phone interview this week. “I’m not worried that this is a pattern. Athletics is a microcosm of society. I am really excited about the team that I have here. Now, does everybody have knuckleheads? Go down the list — they’re everywhere.”What used to be a dividing point for the TCU program — that it didn’t have any knuckleheads — is no more. They have ’em, and they deal with ’em just like everybody else.Patterson said the decision to suspend defensive end Devonte Fields the first two games of the season for a “violation of team policy” was “cut and dried; this is a deal that we’ve handled the same way for the 16 years I’ve been here.”As to what Fields’ infraction was: The rumor mill is speculating it’s anything from the JFK assassination to a slow U.S. economy.The decision to boot reserve corner David Jenkins after he recently was busted for burglary charges was a no-brainer.Devonte can play, so you suspend him. Jenkins probably wasn’t very good, so you dump him.Welcome to big-time college football, but we already knew TCU had made it to the big time and was slaloming the difficult slopes of selective integrity.If TCU is going to be as good as it thinks it can be, the knucklehead factor must drop. Patterson’s team has to be smarter on and off the field if it wants to win nine or 10 games in 2013.“The older teams are more mature and know what to do,” he said of a team that last season was one of the youngest in the nation. “Last year, we had 15 or 20 guys stay over [in the summer] to work out. This summer, it’s closer to 50 and they’re doing what needs to be done.”TCU’s best teams under Patterson were usually not the most athletic or most talented, but they seldom beat themselves. They often won games because the other guys screwed up while the Frogs kept their own mistakes to a minimum.Since last February, TCU’s team has been uncharacteristically stupid on and off the field.Part of the problem is the young guys on this team are following young guys, meaning there is a leadership void. Normally, the quarterback assumes some of that role, but that wasn’t Casey Pachall’s strength.BTW: Patterson did say that he and Pachall talk frequently and that the quarterback is on track to graduate in the fall.“He has color in his face again, and the guy I see here now is the kid I recruited here who came to TCU early,” Patterson said. “It’s a lot different.”By all accounts, Pachall has doggedly done the right thing, from academics to his personal life, since he returned in January.A mature and motivated Pachall solves much for this team.The best teams create peer pressure within a locker room to work, to be accountable and not screw up. This team obviously is either figuring that out or is stupid.We won’t know the answer until the middle of the season.What Patterson sees is a team that is learning.“It’s getting better, but we still don’t have a lot of seniors on this group,” he said. “A smarter team wins the closer games.”For a long time, TCU was one of the smartest teams in the nation because it had to be.You never heard, saw or read about a TCU player stepping in it to the point where a public announcement and punishment were necessary. It’s hard to have a great team if the players are constantly getting into trouble.Patterson does not sound like a coach who trusts his team yet. It explains why he is letting all of his assistants take a summer vacation while he sticks around to keep his eye on everything. The behavior borders on hyper-possessive micromanaging, but he simply doesn’t know any other way aside from keeping tabs on his team himself.He does, however, sound optimistic that his team is getting it, given the number of players who stuck around Fort Worth to work out together.He is optimistic he is recruiting and building the necessary depth to be a championship-caliber team.At some point, however, his best players have to be leaders and grown-ups so everyone will follow suit.At some point, all of these younger players won’t be so young any more, and they better not be knuckleheads, either.
Mac Engel, 817-390-7697 Twitter: @macengelprof