Last year at this time, TCU coach Gary Patterson saw something in practice he hasn’t forgotten.
“I told you guys out of spring we weren’t catching the ball,” he said. “And we didn’t catch the ball in the fall.”
TCU receivers last season cost quarterback Kenny Hill more dropped passes than any other quarterback in the country, according to a count by Pro Football Focus. Taj Williams, the Horned Frogs’ leading receiver, wound up with 39 catches — so few, it didn’t make the NCAA’s list of 203 receivers in catches per game.
In fact, a running back, Kyle Hicks, led TCU in catches.
So naturally, getting more production from the wide receiver corps — and more reliable production, at that — is one of the aims of spring for TCU as it sets out for a fourth season in the Air Raid offense.
Great wide receivers, they catch whatever ball they’ve got to, whether it’s over the middle, it’s too high, it’s outside — whatever it is.
TCU coach Gary Patterson
“Great wide receivers, they catch whatever ball they’ve got to, whether it’s over the middle, it’s too high, it’s outside — whatever it is,” Patterson said last week, talking to reporters after a spring practice. “When Josh Doctson caught 18 balls against Texas Tech, I don’t know how many balls actually hit him right here [in the chest]. He was sliding for balls, he was catching balls out of bounds, he was catching balls over his head. That’s what good wideouts do.”
The next Josh Doctson is going to be hard to find, but there are candidates to at least be the good wideout Patterson pictures in his mind.
Emanuel Porter and Taj Williams fit the height description, both 6-foot-4 with demonstrated leaping ability. But Porter had only 15 catches last year and to date, only 41 in three seasons.
2016 TCU leading receivers Kyle Hicks, 47 catches Taj Williams, 39 catches John Diarse, 33 catches KaVonate Turpin, 30 catches Desmon White, 30 catches Jaelan Austin, 23 catches
Williams came to TCU after two enormously productive seasons in junior college, but after a good start, proved inconsistent. He had 11 catches in the first game, but only 28 in the next 12. He was shut out in the bowl game.
John Diarse, Desmond White and Ty Slanina are highly experienced seniors — 113 games and 203 catches combined — but they had only four touchdowns combined last season.
Jaelan Austin, a junior who tied for the team lead with five touchdown catches last year, could be poised for breakout year.
Jarrison Stewart, Isaiah Graham and Daniel Walsh are other veteran options, plus KaVontae Turpin if he satisfies Patterson that his school responsibilities are in order.
“Possibilities, yeah,” Patterson said, asked if someone could develop into the kind of receiver he was describing. “Emanuel Porter has had a good camp. Jaelan has. We have three freshmen coming in that have possibilities of being those guys. Taj Williams has the potential to be, but we’ve got to keep getting better at that position. Shaun Nixon can play some wideout for us, like he did before he got hurt. He’s got the potential to be that guy.”
The incoming freshman class includes Jalen Reagor and Omar Manning, two of the top receiver recruits in Texas.
268.2 Yards passing per game for TCU in 2016, ranking fifth in the Big 12. The Horned Frogs’ completion percentage of 58.6 ranked eighth.
“You’ve got to have some wide receivers step up and say, ‘I’m the guy, you throw it to me, I’m going to find a way to catch it,’” Patterson said. “That’s what great throwing offenses do. If you’re going to throw it, then I’m going to catch it. Until you get to that point of being like that, that’s what you’ve got to get done. And so that’s what we’re striving to get done.”
Patterson doesn’t want to see what he saw last year. The memory of all those drops is not good.
But so far, he said, balls are being caught.
“Seems to be OK," he said. “If not, we won’t win very many ballgames. Because that’s what we do.”
TCU spring game
11 a.m. April 8, Amon G. Carter Stadium