Things are notwhat they seem around this purple-hued program in the heart of the Metroplex.Take TCU's mascot, the horned frog—not a frog at all, it turns out, but a spinylizard with a "third eye," capable, when angered, of projecting astream of blood through a duct on its scaly head.
Take also coachGary Patterson, whose glowering intensity on the sideline sometimes suggeststhat he may be on the verge of a similar eruption. But there's more to the49-year-old Patterson than meets the third eye. He is a guitar-picking,envelope-pushing radical whose 4-2-5 defensive scheme might be the antidote tothe spread offenses now flourishing across the college football landscape.
And take TCU'sgleaming, recently renovated football facilities: the high-tech players' loungeand team meeting room; the vast new Sam Baugh indoor practice structure. Theyare actually parts of a secret laboratory in which a series of remarkabletransformations has taken place. Within those walls, you see, Patterson gathersswift, skilled offensive players—very-good-but-not-quite-great quarterbacks andrunning backs from all over the Lone Star State—and tells them the score: Ithink it would be in everyone's best interest if you moved to defense.
For Jerry Hughes,the dream died on a June afternoon in 2006. An all-district running back andkick returner from Stephen F. Austin High in Sugar Land, Texas, he arrived inFort Worth for summer workouts eager to follow in the footsteps of LaDainianTomlinson at TCU. So Hughes was troubled to see the number on the practicejersey hanging in his stall: 98. But then he thought, The high numbers musthave been assigned "to the guys who were going to redshirt," hesays.
Next, though, hereceived a packet for members of the defensive line, after which he was told tomeet with coordinator Dick Bumpas. "I started thinking," recallsHughes, "maybe my running back days are numbered."
Not numbered.Over. Patterson invited Hughes to his office, where he showed the 6'1",200-pound teenager video of then sophomore defensive end Tommy Blake sackingvarious signal-callers. Blake had been an all-state high school running backand had made the switch, grudgingly, to defense after his redshirt freshmanseason. He promptly blew up, getting seven sacks and 13½ tackles for loss, thenfinding himself on a handful of preseason All-America teams.
Trusting inPatterson, Hughes agreed to take one for the team, although he remembersthinking as he left the office, I'm 200 pounds. How is this going to work?
Quite nicely, itturned out. After bulking up and boning up on the nuances of the position,Hughes morphed into the scourge of the Mountain West Conference last season,racking up 15 sacks and forcing six fumbles, leading the nation in bothcategories. Now a ripped 6'3", 257 pounds, he has already picked up sixsacks and 7½ tackles for loss for the 4--0 Frogs, whose 39--14 victory over SMUin the rain last Saturday night left them in possession of the Iron Skillet,symbolizing supremacy in the Metroplex. It also nudged TCU to No. 10 in the APpoll (ninth in the SI rankings), leaving the Frogs well-positioned to go to oneof the few places their coach has yet to take them.
Patterson's Frogshave gone bowling in seven of his eight years at the helm, but they've neverbeen to a BCS game. This season could be different. The egg laid by 12th-rankedHouston at UTEP on Saturday, a 58--41 loss to the Miners, leaves TCU and BoiseState as the last two BCS-busting hopefuls.
True, thesixth-ranked Broncos have the inside track on the sole automatic berth that thesport's grandees have deigned to toss the peasantry—i.e., teams from non-BCSconferences. But with a much more rugged schedule than Boise's, the Frogscould, well, leapfrog the Broncos. Failing that, they could still secure anat-large bid. Of course all this is predicated on TCU's winning out. With roadgames remaining against always pesky Air Force and No. 18 BYU, plus amid-November home date with Utah, it's a tall order, but it's one that TCU,playing to its potential, can handle. These guys have been so good for so longthat they can't be called overachievers anymore.
When it comes torecruiting, Patterson is a realist. "As a general rule, no one beats Texas[in recruiting] in the state of Texas," he says. But making do with thetable scraps left by the Longhorns, TCU has won 11 games in four of the lastsix seasons. With September road victories over Virginia and Clemson, the Frogshave won 13 of their last 16 against teams from BCS conferences.
How is thishappening? How has a program from a private school with fewer than 3,700 malestudents become a fixture in the Top 25? Patterson's formula has been to employa conservative but opportunistic offense, mix in strong special teams and, mostimportant, play swarming, confusing lights-out defense. And more key than hisschemes are the guys he finds to run them. His players tend to fit a certainmold. They are:
• Fast. You can beshort. But if you can't fly to the ball, TCU isn't interested.
• From Texas—ofthe 21 players in TCU's 2009 recruiting class, 20 are from in-state—and acutelyaware of having been overlooked by Texas. Patterson, says Dallas Cowboyslinebacker Stephen Hodge, a former Horned Frog, "wants guys with ablue-collar work ethic and a chip on their shoulders."
• Low maintenance.Patterson seeks self-starters, guys who watch video during their lunch periods,who don't have to be lassoed into the weight room. "It doesn't matter howbad I want it if they don't," he says.
• Not overlyattached to the position they played in high school. In 2006 five of the 11players on the defensive line were former high school running backs. Hodge, astrong safety for the Frogs, was a prep quarterback, as were three recentstarting tight ends, two of whom ended up in the NFL. Another transplanted QB:Jason Phillips, a four-year starter at linebacker who's now a rookie with theBaltimore Ravens.
"When CoachPatterson asks you to change, you listen," says Phillips, who also playedlinebacker in high school. "His track record is pretty good. Plus, itusually means you're going to get on the field quicker."
A fullback duringhis redshirt year in 2004, Phillips was dragooned into service as a linebackerthe following August, injuries having depleted the Frogs at that position. Hepicked it up quickly—"I played pretty good during two-a-days," herecalls—and ended up starting in TCU's opener. Does he remember who theopponent was?
"Oklahoma," Phillips replies. "They had Adrian Peterson." ButPhillips and his mates held Peterson to 63 yards rushing on 22 carries as theFrogs shocked the fifth-ranked Sooners, 17--10.
Showing up atevery game in 2006—from Las Vegas to West Point—were the parents of a freshmanwho didn't play much, which bothered Pam and Jerry Hughes not in the least."We'd be excited just to see him get on the field for a few plays,"says Pam. She and her husband have been to every game in their son's collegecareer as he has emerged as one of the nation's premier pass rushers. "Allthis is much more than we expected," she says. "We didn't see thiscoming at all."
They canempathize, in that case, with the quarterbacks her son specializes intraumatizing.
Asked how he wentbroke in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, the dissolute Mike Campbell replies,"Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly." That's a fair description ofhow Hughes arrived at his current level. It took him the better part of twoyears, he says, to master the rudiments of his craft: "Getting off blocks,using my hands, reading the tackle, reading the play. It was a lot being thrownat me."
Going into TCU'smid-October matchup with undefeated BYU last year, Hughes was having a verygood season: seven sacks, two forced fumbles, 10 tackles for loss. Suddenly, hewas having a great one. His single-handed demolition of the Cougars—four sacks,two forced fumbles—spearheaded a 32--7 upset and made his reputation.
Despite strongindications that he might have gone as high as the second round, Hughes neverseriously considered entering last spring's NFL draft—a good thing, says NFLNetwork draft analyst Mike Mayock, "because most of the pro guys I talkedto felt he could use another year."
The bad news forHughes? It's going to be a crowded draft this time around. With agents warningplayers of a possible rookie wage cap in 2011, "there's going to be arecord number of kids coming out," says Mayock.
The good news?Hughes projects as an outside linebacker in a 3--4 scheme. "There are moreand more 3--4 teams, which means more slots for his kind of player," saysMayock. Because he'll be switching from end, scouts at all-star games and thecombine will want to see him drop back in pass coverage and catch the ball.
Bring it on, saysHughes, who points out that in addition to being a "kind of BrianWestbrook, inside-outside threat" at Austin High, where as a senior herushed for 1,412 yards and 19 touchdowns, he had another 215 receivingyards.
Sold on Hughes'sskills is Landon Walker, Clemson's right tackle and the only one of his dancepartners to hold him sackless this season. "He's one of the best I've everfaced," says Walker, who also noted that there was no trash-talking betweenthem. "The last thing you want to do is get that guy ticked off."
Exactly. We allknow what happens when a Horned Frog gets angry.
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"When Coach Patterson asks you to change, youlisten," says Phillips. "His track record is pretty good."
Here are three other Top 25 teams getting it donelargely with defense—and hoping that's what really wins titles
By picking off Penn State's Daryll Clark three timesand forcing him into a 12-for-32 passing night in a 21--10 upset of the thenNo. 5 Nittany Lions on Sept. 26, the Hawkeyes turned in one of the bestdefensive performances of the year. Again. Coordinator Norm Parker's "SixSeconds of Hell" unit, which last Saturday held Arkansas State to 80 yardson the ground (below), has yet to yield a rushing TD this season.
2. South Carolina
Steve Spurrier has matched his best start (4--1) infive seasons in Columbia, but it's not because of his usual explosive offense.Instead it's a defense as green as it is stout; 13 players on the two-deep arefreshmen or sophomores. They officially grew up on Sept. 24, harassing QB JevanSnead of then No. 4 Ole Miss into a 7-for-21 night and stopping the Rebels on12 of 13 third downs. It was South Carolina's first win over a top five team in28 years.
A week after derailing the Heisman campaign of Calrunning back Jahvid Best and keeping the Bears out of the red zone, the Ducksheld Washington State to 158 yards and four first downs. Oregon's 13 takeawayslead the Pac-10, and most impressively the Ducks have outscored their last twoopponents 94--9.
Photograph by DARREN CARROLL
NO OFFENSE Hughes was a tailback until Patterson (above) remade him into a top pass rusher.
[See caption above]
PANNING OUT Hughes got a sack against SMU, then picked up the skillet that goes to the game's winner.
[See caption above]
DAVID E. KLUTHO