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A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Who Steps Up for the Horned Frogs?

Where does T.C.U. go from here? I’m speaking of the Horned Frogs as a football team, mind you, not the university as a whole, which will do a fair amount of soul-searching over the coming weeks and months. Here’s what the program has lost, boiled down to the pertinent facts: an all-American linebacker, a starting strong safety, an all-conference defensive tackle and a reserve offensive lineman. Just on paper, that’s a fairly devastating set of losses. Digging deeper, however, reveals four departures that will hamper the Horned Frogs immensely as the team prepares for life in the Big 12. That’s the offensively-potent Big 12, of course, which contained four of the nation’s most prolific scoring teams in the country a season ago.

Obviously, four players will need to step into increased roles. Again, on paper, the Horned Frogs need to identify at least two new starters; that number jumps to three if you include Devin Johnson, who started over the second half of last fall but was not assured of retaining his starting role come this season.

The biggest loss is that of Tanner Brock, who despite missing all but one game of last season due to an ankle injury was viewed as a team leader heading into September. When healthy as a sophomore, Brock led the Horned Frogs with 106 tackles — 26 more than his next-closest teammate — and was honored, in some circles, with all-American accolades.

The Horned Frogs need to find a new starter at middle linebacker, where Brock’s departure — along with the graduation of Tank Carder, his replacement — leaves a wide hole in the heart of the T.C.U. defense. The secondary, so key in this defense, loses at worst a valuable reserve. T.C.U. is ravaged by graduation at offensive tackle, which makes Horn’s departure sting, and Yendrey’s contributions along the defensive line can’t be underestimated. So who steps up?

1. Strong side linebacker Kenny Cain. A former special teams menace, Brock’s season-ending injury pushed Cain into a starting role last fall. He took over the spot left vacant when Carder, another all-American, moved from the strong side into the middle to fill Brock’s shoes. Cain responded with a team-best 70 tackles despite missing one game, and should take his place this fall among the program’s recent line of all-conference talent at the position. He becomes the face of the linebacker corps, though Cain won’t technically replace Brock in the middle.

That’s an option, though not a great one for either party: Cain has clearly taken to the strong side, and he’s too undersized, barring some major work in the weight room, to stand up in the middle. As of today, the favorite for the starting role is sophomore-to-be Deryck Gildon, who backed up Carder and fellow senior Kris Gardner a season ago. Another pair of linebacker options, James McFarland and A.J. Hilliard, arrive as part of February’s recruiting haul.

2. The young interior linemen. The Horned Frogs return four defensive tackles who started at least one game last fall; each was either a freshman or a sophomore. If this quartet develops as expected, it will greatly diminish the pain stemming from Yendrey’s departure — though not one of the group is a two-time all-Mountain West selection, such was Yendrey. One of the four, Chuck Hunter, became the program’s first true freshman to start a game since 2007 when he earned the nod against Portland State in September.

Jon Lewis became the second true freshman to do so since 2007 when he started in the Horned Frogs’ win over Colorado State in November. Then-sophomore Ray Burns made three starts, while redshirt freshman David Johnson started the last eight games of the season next to Yendrey. Johnson, the veteran of the group, is assured of retaining his starting role. The best lineup might move Johnson over to Yendrey’s old spot while promoting Hunter, the biggest defensive lineman on the team, into a starting role.

3. Sam Carter, Trent Thomas, or T.B.A. The former started the season opener, when Baylor ripped the T.C.U. secondary to shreds, so it wasn’t surprising that he moved back into a secondary role shortly thereafter. The disappointing debut does little to diminish Carter’s potential: a converted quarterback, Carter’s size and athleticism makes him a promising young piece of the T.C.U. defense. Thomas started the next four games before ceding the starting role to Johnson, who started the final seven games of the season.

These two are the favorites to step into a full-time starting role at strong safety, thanks in part to the starting experience gained a season ago. What T.C.U. needs at the position — and all through the secondary — is a degree of consistency; if neither returning contributor can avoid the sort of lapses that plagued the secondary for much of last season, the Horned Frogs may have no option but to turn the reins over to one of the team’s four incoming freshmen defensive backs.

Jordan Moore, a safety recruit out of Georgia, chose T.C.U. over offers from Auburn, Florida, Georgia and Ohio State. The offer list suggests that Moore can play. The best addition to the secondary, however, can be found along the sidelines: Chad Glasgow is back in the fold as Gary Patterson’s safeties coach after a painful one-year turn as Tommy Tuberville’s defensive coordinator in Lubbock.

4. The offense. The lack of proven options at tackle is a concern. Horn, who made one start a season ago, would have been in the mix to replace Robert Deck at right tackle. For now, the Horned Frogs know that James Dunbar will get the nod at left tackle after apprenticing under James Olson last fall; what’s happening elsewhere along the line, especially at left guard and strong side tackle, remains very much up in the air.

But think of the big picture. With the losses occurring on the defensive side of the ball, it’s clear that the T.C.U. offense will need to do even more of the heavy lifting than it did last fall, when Casey Pachall spearheaded an attack that helped offset a fairly disappointing showing on the defensive side of the ball. Best in the nation in total defense in 2010, the Horned Frogs slid down to 32nd a year ago, allowing about 1,300 more yards through the air — hence the concerns in the secondary.

In addition, even with a vintage defense in place the Horned Frogs would need to score points to keep pace with the fast-paced tempo of the Big 12. West Virginia is merely the most recent addition to the conference’s offensive pedigree; Oklahoma State finished last season ranked second in the F.B.S. in scoring offense, while Baylor ranked fourth, Oklahoma 10th and Texas A&M 11th.

Good news: T.C.U.’s offense is good enough to crash the party. After a sterling debut, Pachall is a Heisman candidate at quarterback. Once again, the backfield will be loaded. A young receiver corps grew with Pachall; outside of Antoine Hicks, the entire group returns in 2012. The offense can score points in bunches. Whether the Horned Frogs can score enough to offset its losses on the defensive side of the ball will be the program’s defining storyline entering the season — when it comes to the on-field product, at least.

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  1. Jake says:

    “Good news: T.C.U.’s offense is good enough to crash the party. After a sterling debut, Pachall is a Heisman candidate at quarterback. Once again, the backfield will be loaded. A young receiver corps grew with Pachall; outside of Antoine Hicks, the entire group returns in 2012. The offense can score points in bunches. Whether the Horned Frogs can score enough to offset its losses on the defensive side of the ball will be the program’s defining storyline entering the season — when it comes to the on-field product, at least.”

    That’s all well-and-good, except Pachall might be the next to get caught up in this drug sting. Pachall is (or was, until yesterday) Brock’s roommate and it’s pretty widely known in TCU circles that the guy likes to party (not just talking about drinking). If the authorities decide to pursue this all the way, I wouldn’t be shocked to see TCU without a QB, as well as a few other positions, come next fall.

    Paul: I think it’s a little premature to assume that Pachall, or any other player on the roster, is going to get kicked off the team as a result of yesterday’s news. It would actually be quite unfair to assume that Pachall won’t be part of the team come the fall. Until there’s news, I, and everyone else, should go forward as if every T.C.U. player minus those four who were arrested yesterday will be part of the team in 2012.

  2. Ezra says:

    Pachall’s reputation as a partier stems, I think, mostly from his actions prior to the 2011 season.

    At least, we hope so.

  3. K says:

    Great reporting, you know your stuff.

    Fabuluje is a transfer who set out last year. He is 6’7 330 and will play 10 years in the NFL. I think he is the left tackle, Dunbar, Michael Thompson who started before an injury, and Bobby Thompson will battle for the other tackle spot.

    You’ve always given TCU a fair shake and I read your column daily.



  4. Zac says:

    “Texas A&M” ? Guess you missed the news that they are now in the SeC .

  5. EJ says:

    You know, guys, look at GP’s era and if you could honestly predict in February who at TCU would be posting leading statistics on the team, across opponents, across a conference, or across Division I the following November, you could only have done so for a few of the returning veterans. And even that would be no material predictor of how the positions would be filled to accomplish team advantage from Saturday to Saturday in the following fall.

    Have we seen enough to impute a GP style or pattern? Sure, but what we’ve seen most is GP’s and his staff’s ability to really assess the talent in the crew, culture material physical and football ability growth in a significant portion of them by season kickoff, and develop the intelligence on opponents to determine deployment. And all the “I told you so’s” still don’t offset the surprises that brings, mostly very pleasant ones.

    Of late, TCU has become very attractive to schoolboys with high notoriety, but I doubt anyone in Fort Worth has forgotten the principles of past success. My son, who gains more insider insight than any pundit I know about, calls that bunch the paper tigers. Personally, I wrap a lot of fish in that paper. Only the gauntlet determines who’s going to get the job done at the end of the snap count. ‘Til then, that’s a beauty contest.

    This is hardly the first season that standouts won’t be back for reasons other than conventionally exhausting eligibility. And plenty of those DNF’s were verbosely predicted to leave fatal vacuums. Nothing new in 2012.

    It is reasonable to suppose that little August reality will be revealed, even by Purple & White or Coaches’ Events. One principle GP knows well and really worthy of our congratulation is keeping close to the vest. That his staff does the same is consanguinity itself, and maybe the real strength in any season.

    What can best be said is that like every other season, 2012 is going to be a lot more interesting than name dropping speculation can possibly predict.

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