The O in Horned Frog
The defense has holes, but coach Gary Patterson waves away such concerns. "Last year we didn't have any linebackers, we didn't have a quarterback," he says of the conventional wisdom. "This year I've got to replace six starters on defense." Everyone's got pieces to find and plug in, he figures. But most teams don't get to rebuild around an offense packed with playmakers, including a senior QB who's a Heisman candidate.
Co--offensive coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie arrived in Fort Worth last season and promptly turned Trevone Boykin, a former receiver, into a dual-threat dynamo. Now the 6'2", 205-pound Boykin will look to improve on a year in which he passed for a school-record 3,901 yards, rushed for 707 and accounted for 42 touchdowns. Boykin says Cumbie and Meacham brought "an attitude and swag" to the offense, and Patterson notes that Air Raid attacks like the Horned Frogs' often hit "another level" in the second season. Returning senior receivers Josh Doctson (a school-record 1,018 yards on 65 catches, 11 for TDs) and Kolby Listenbee (41 catches for 753 yards), plus senior running back Aaron Green (7.1 yards per carry) and Shaun Nixon (back after missing his freshman year with right ACL tear), will provide plenty of support.
In a twist for TCU, it's the defense that's an unknown. The Horned Frogs lost their leaders in tackles and interceptions from a unit that was first in the Big 12 in total D, allowing 341.8 yards per game. Patterson praises the football IQ of his new linebackers—junior Sammy Douglas and freshman Mike Freeze—who are faster than last season's duo. Three linemen return, including 6'3", 248-pound senior defensive end James McFarland, who led the team with seven sacks. "We've got a lot of questions that need to be answered," McFarland says. "We have the potential to be faster [everywhere] and more physical up front. Or we could be not that good."
As for early talk that TCU should make the playoff, Patterson has a response: Last season was about proving people wrong. In 2015 it's about proving them right.
The Horned Frogs want to talk only about Minnesota, and for good reason: That's no cupcake opener in Minneapolis. Survive that, and the next daunting date isn't until Nov. 21 at Oklahoma, followed by a visit from Baylor to end the season. One trap: West Virginia, Oct. 29 in Fort Worth. The Mountaineers took the Horned Frogs to overtime in 2012 and '13 and lost a 31--30 heartbreaker last year.
He hasn't played in a real game since 2013, dislocating his shoulder after his junior year at Graham (Texas) High, but freshman Mike Freeze is already slated to start at linebacker. A converted safety, the 6'3", 220-pound three-star recruit has the size to match up with and bring down ballcarriers, but it's his speed that stands out. He'll need the versatility as he attempts to fit into the Horned Frogs' 4-2-5 scheme and replace Paul Dawson, the Big 12 defensive player of the year, who wound up as a third-round pick of the Bengals.
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
They're as explosive and aggressive on offense as any team in the country. You're more likely to beat them in a shootout, the way Baylor did last season, than you are to shut them down.... The key—obviously—is slowing down Trevone Boykin. You've got to keep him off-balance and put him in predictable situations like second-and-11 and third-and-six. You let him get ahead of the chains with all the weapons he has at his disposal, and good luck, especially with their play-calling creativity.... When you've got the ball, you have to be just as aggressive as they are. Gary Patterson's smart about his 4-2-5 defense, but he has to rebuild this season's unit, particularly in the back seven. When you get in the red zone, you better score touchdowns because their offense certainly will.... Remember, their last loss was in early October [to Baylor], so they've got a ton of momentum. They've always played with a lot of energy, and to a certain degree they're fearless.
DARREN CARROLL FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (DOCTSON)
COURTESY OF TCU ATHLETICS (FREEZE)
JIM COWSERT/AP (BOYKIN)