Three weeks ago, TCU signed its best recruiting class ever.
This week, it starts getting a look at some of it when spring football practice begins.
Eight of the 22 signees enrolled early, so they will participate in the 15 practices starting Friday and scheduled to wrap up with a spring game on April 1 at Amon G. Carter Stadium.
Wide receiver Taj Williams, offensive lineman Chris Gaynor and running back Sewo Olonilua have potential for instant impact, so their spring head start could give the Horned Frogs a big head start in finding replacements for their lead receiver, four linemen and top running back.
Also scheduled to practice in spring are defensive ends Mat Boesen and Isaiah Chambers, safety Markell Simmons, tight end Artayvious Lynn and quarterback Brennen Wooten.
They join what looks to be a veteran team in 2016. The offense returns five starters, and it could be seven if receivers Deante’ Gray and Ty Slanina come back from season-ending injuries. The defense could have as many as 11 returning starters, counting the potential comebacks of defensive end James McFarland, linebacker Sammy Douglas, safety Kenny Iloka and cornerback Ranthony Texada.
But there is a lot to sort out, and not everyone will go through the entirety of spring.
Linebacker Ty Summers will sit out, and other players will go through only about two-thirds of the schedule to “clean some things up,” coach Gary Patterson said. Last season, quarterback Trevone Boykin and McFarland were among the players who did not finish the spring so they could have surgery to repair an injury from the previous season.
But the practices remain the most valuable part of the spring for Patterson and the coaches. They will provide the outline sketches of the team that practices in the fall, when the other signees arrive.
“Our biggest thing will be to get as many practices as we can, find out our chemistry,” he said.
Here is a look at five possible questions the Horned Frogs could be hoping to answer in the spring, or at least start to answer:
1. Is Kenny Hill indeed the quarterback?
He looks like the best choice, just from a credentials standpoint. He has been a starter in the SEC and a big winner with big numbers at an elite high school in Texas, and he is the son of a pro athlete. But Patterson and quarterbacks coach Sonny Cumbie will look for the intangibles in the spring — can Hill command leadership, can he show a Boykin-like work ethic, what happens when adversity hits? So far, Hill, a Southlake Carroll grad, appears on track. If the Horned Frogs get the answers they are looking for, they will have taken a big step. But that won’t be all. Developing a backup quarterback, or two, is also a must.
2. Who are the pass rushers?
Aside from Josh Carraway, that is. Carraway led the team in sacks with nine last season, but no one else had more than four, and that was departing senior Terrell Lathan. James McFarland, the 2014 sacks leader, will be back from injury. But TCU’s push for pass rushers showed with the signing of junior college defensive end Mat Boesen and four-star high school defensive end Isaiah Chambers. Returning defensive tackles Aaron Curry, Chris Bradley and Tevin Lawson combined for six sacks. Eight of the team’s 32 sacks a year ago came from linebackers, safeties or cornerbacks.
3. Who’s the go-to receiver, if there is one?
“Right now, there’s no Josh Doctsons,” Patterson said. “There’s no first-round draft choices.” But wait. Patterson continued, “That doesn’t mean there won’t be, because we didn’t know what he was.” If there is a position with options for TCU, it is wide receiver. Eight returning players caught a pass last year, including freshmen KaVontae Turpin, Jarrison Stewart and Jaelan Austin, who combined for 66 catches and 11 touchdowns. Turpin was third on the team in catches and second in touchdown catches. Emanuel Porter started the Alamo Bowl and caught a touchdown pass. Gray and Slanina could return at full health. The team has a decision to make about where to play running back Shaun Nixon, the leading returning receiver with 47 catches.
4. What’s available in the secondary?
TCU is short on corners. With Julius Lewis likely to miss 2016 because of injury and Ranthony Texada recovering from his season-ending knee injury, the only experienced cornerback is Torrance Mosley, unless Nick Orr is borrowed from safety. “I think he makes us better at safety,” Patterson said. There are not many other cornerback options, although Patterson spoke highly on signing day of Jeff Gladney, a 2014 signee slowed by injury last season. “We’ll start spring with two guys who have never started a football game before,” Patterson said. “We’ll possibly only have one corner that’s even played in a ballgame with us.” At safety, the Frogs signed three players to add to a group of veterans Denzel Johnson, Arico Evans, Niko Small, Ray Issahaku and Kenny Iloka, if he can return from his knee injury.
5. Who are the big uglies?
TCU lost four starters off the offensive line, although it might actually be considered two. Center Austin Schlottman and guard Matt Pryor started the last three games, against Oklahoma, Baylor and Oregon, replacing the injured Joey Hunt and Jamelle Naff. If they hold their spots, and if Joseph Noteboom returns at right tackle (or moves to left tackle), the Frogs need another guard and another tackle. Now healthy, Aviante Collins will get a look at tackle. Chris Gaynor played guard and tackle in junior college. Pryor is listed as a guard, so he might fit there. Two of 2014’s top signees, tackles David Bolisomi and Sam Awolope, might also make a push. With a new quarterback, the importance of a finding and developing a cohesive offensive line becomes even more important.