Media members arrived in waves Monday, surrounding TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin and peppering him with questions about his plans for dealing with life as a Heisman Trophy candidate.
Inquiring minds wanted to know if Boykin, the preseason Big 12 offensive player of the year, can be the straw that stirs the Horned Frogs’ national championship cocktail this season.
The short answer: Sure, he can. He’ll be the most visible of 10 returning starters from a prolific offense that averaged 47.6 points per game last season against Big 12 opponents.
But if you’re looking for the guy who truly holds TCU’s national title hopes in his hands, the individual who must turn unknown commodities into championship parts, you need to look somewhere besides Boykin. The heavy lifting in this national title quest will fall to the Horned Frogs’ rebuilt defense, which must replace six starters from last year’s 12-1 squad.
And the prime architect in that project will be coach Gary Patterson. Although he has an admirable record in that department, this will be the first time Coach P has needed to replace so much strength up the middle (two linebackers, two safeties, two defensive linemen) while replenishing a front-runner in the national championship chase.
“There’s a lot of production that we have to be able to replace,” said Patterson, who was pleased with the early steps taken during spring drills. But as he pointed out Monday, the finished product will remain a mystery until the Frogs attempt to apply the brakes to the Minnesota offense in their Sept. 3 opener in Minneapolis (ESPN, 8 p.m.). He compared that trip to Gen. George Custer’s military encounter at Little Bighorn in 1876.
“We’ve got a lot of practices before we get to Minnesota, which is going to be a very tough ball game,” Patterson said. “It’s like Custer. The only difference between Custer and us is we know what’s on the other side of the hill.”
That knowledge, Patterson hopes, will prevent the Frogs from following Custer’s lead and observing the last stand for their national title hopes on opening night. Read between the lines and you can tell Patterson expects this unit to be more athletic. But the question is how quickly the unit gels and whether players can make comparable game-changing plays to a 2014 unit that helped TCU post a plus-18 turnover margin, including five pick-sixes by five players.
“Having six new starters can hurt or help,” said free safety Derrick Kindred, TCU’s self-appointed defensive leader. “It just depends on how each and every guy prepares and whether they take that extra step and do what they need to do on their own to make it go.”
To hasten that process, Kindred said he welcomes the role of tempo-setter and urged teammates to count on him to provide “that little hype about us that keeps everybody going.”
Patterson, in turn, will be the guy who sets the lineup and calls the plays. As long as that continues, TCU is playing to its strength. Gil Brandt, senior draft analyst for NFL.com and former Dallas Cowboys’ vice-president of player personnel, said no coach in college football is better suited to make a successful defensive overhaul in one off-season than Patterson.
“You can talk about (Alabama’s) Nick Saban and people like that who are defensive coaches. But I think Patterson is as good as any coach in college football right now,” Brandt said. “What he’s done there is off the charts.”
What Patterson must do between now and November is steady his new defenders to be able to withstand a pair of season-defining games at Oklahoma (Nov. 21) and against Baylor in Fort Worth (Nov. 27). Key among the fresh faces will be an all-new crew at linebacker that includes Sammy Douglas, a junior from Arlington High School, and three freshmen (Mike Freeze, Alec Dunham, Ty Summers).
Although productive, Patterson said last year’s starting linebackers were “the slowest group we’ve ever had at TCU,” with the two departed starters running a 4.8 and a 5.0 in the 40-yard dash. The new crew, he said, averages about 4.5 across the board. That elevates the athleticism at the position.
TCU also will get an athletic upgrade at defensive tackle, where Nebraska transfer Aaron Curry (6-foot-2, 280 pounds), a Keller Fossil Ridge graduate, joins the fray. But will it be enough?
“We’re going to be young,” defensive end James McFarland said. “But it’s all about growing people up and getting them to play at a high level. Coach P has shown that he’s one of the best at doing that. I have full confidence in him.”
He’s confident enough, in fact, to predict that the Frogs will seize the CFP playoff berth that narrowly eluded them last season.
“Our ultimate goal is to make the playoff,” McFarland said. “That’s what we’re working hard for. And we will not accept anything but that.”
But to get there, the burden of proof will fall on TCU’s rebuilt defense. Not its prolific offense or its face-of-the-franchise quarterback.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760