Expectations remain high for TCU despite personnel issues haunting either side of the ball

The lofty expectations buzzing around TCU less than a month ago remain — even if the bluster has lost some of its luster.

Entering their second season in the Big 12, the Horned Frogs seemed poised to challenge for the conference title entering August camp despite big concerns at linebacker and offensive line.

Then three players, including two starters, bolted from the team the first week of camp, making the team’s two glaring issues even bigger riddles to solve.

TCU coach Gary Patterson has kept a stiff upper lip through the personnel losses, which included linebacker Joel Hasley and offensive tackles Tayo Fabuluje and Michael Thompson, even while peppering his remarks to the media since the departures with reminders that he’s said all along the move to the Big 12 would be a three- to four-year process of beefing up the program’s depth.

“Coaches have to move on and put the best team you can on the field,” he said last week. “That’s the problem with those guys not being on the team. It makes a younger player have to play maybe before his time because you only have ‘x’ amount of numbers. You make a freshmen offensive lineman or linebacker step up instead of playing on special teams.”

Of course, ill-timed player departures hurt the 20th-ranked Frogs before and during last season, and they still managed to go 7-6 and were, arguably, outplayed only twice — at Oklahoma State and at home against eventual Big 12 champion Kansas State.

TCU’s 2013 schedule does the Frogs no favors, however. After a nationally televised season opener against No. 12 LSU at AT&T Stadium, TCU plays another nationally televised game at Texas Tech on Sept. 12.

A 3-0 start could buoy the Frogs and offer not only a path toward a league title but could also put them on a legitimate national championship trajectory. A 1-2 start, while not a season-folding calamity, would surely take the shine off expectations.

The month of October offers mighty tests with games at Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and Texas’ first trip to Fort Worth since 1994. The fate of the Frogs’ 2013 season will be decided before Halloween.

The matter of who will start at quarterback — Casey Pachall or Trevone Boykin — won’t be resolved, at least publicly, until the Frogs hit the field against the Tigers in Arlington. Patterson said Sunday that there’s no sense in allowing LSU to plan for one of the quarterbacks.

“It hurts us more [to announce it early] than it helps us going into a game where nobody thinks we have a chance to win it anyway,” he said.

Much of the preseason hype hitched to TCU, which was picked to finish third in the league by the media, centers around the return of Pachall and running back Waymon James. Pachall hopes to return to his role running the offense after leaving the team four games in a year ago in the wake of an arrest on suspicion of driving while intoxicated.

James led the team in rushing in 2011, but a season-ending knee injury in Game 2 a year ago forced freshman B.J. Catalon to take a leading role.

But most Big 12 teams have talented backfields. Success in the Big 12, Patterson said, comes down to the trenches. Three of TCU’s four starting defensive linemen return, including Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Devonte Fields. Fields, who will miss the first two games while he serves a two-game suspension for breaking team rules late in the spring, won’t catch opponents off guard this season. And he’ll be playing without the pressure supplied from the left side of the line by Stansly Maponga. Jon Koontz replaces Maponga and has been a steady force during camp, Patterson said.

The offensive line, despite losing its starting right tackle in Fabuluje, has been the team’s most improved group from the spring, Patterson has said multiple times. But he’s also lamented the lack of depth at the position and being forced to use inexperienced freshmen Patrick Morris and Joseph Noteboom and junior transfer Lloyd Tunstill, among others, as key reserves.

“Everybody in the Big 12 has good skill players,” he said. “Who has the best fronts? Can you run the football? And can the defensive line rush the passer? Everybody has good skill players. Where do you make the difference? It’s got to be there, the front people.”

How does the defense improve on 2012, when it led the league with a 323.9 yards per game average? That’s simple for Patterson.

“Win more ball games. Hold people to one less point,” he said, before echoing his own refrain about holding opponents to field goals instead of touchdowns. “If we would have done that in two or three ball games, instead of winning seven games we would have won 10 games. We’ve got to work on keeping people out of the end zone. Less big plays. Tackle better. You’ve got stop the run.

“Even though people throw it, it comes down to stopping the run. Look what [West Virginia receiver] Tavon Austin [as a running back] did to Oklahoma last year. You don’t stop the run, they’re not going to throw it. It’s a pretty simple situation.”