Maybe it's a testament to Gary Patterson. Perhaps it's just recency bias or the illusion of permanence. Maybe we're all just idiots, but if I said a team that would lose its quarterback, one of its top two running backs, two of its top three receivers, five critical offensive linemen, its best rushing defensive lineman, a top five tackler in the big 12, his backup, an All-Big 12 safety with 39 career starts, and an All-Conference safety with 42 career starts, could compete for a conference title you'd think I was crazy.
We aren't crazy. We also aren't predicting TCU to challenge for the Big 12. A lot of people are.
The losses are too significant and too widespread for the Frogs to emulate last seasons eleven win season and Big 12 title game appearance. But the fact that TCU is in the conversation says a lot about what Gary Patterson's built in Fort Worth. If TCU can challenge for a Big 12 title in 2018, it might be his best coaching job yet.
Kenny Hill threw for nearly 10,000 yards in his college career and completed 64% of his attempts. In two seasons for the Horned Frogs, he hit for 40 touchdown passes. Yes, he threw 21 picks, but we come to praise fair Kenny, not to bury him. He's a tough guy to replace.
So is ultra versatile Kyle Hicks at running back or John Diarse, Desmon White, Ty Slanina at receiver. Up front Joseph Noteboom, Austin Schlottmann, Patrick Morris, and Matt Pryor are all gone. Noteboom and Pryor alone combined for 72 combined consecutive starts. For three years you knew who was protecting the blind spots.
It's a lot to overcome.
At quarterback TCU will turn to one of two highly touted young players, sophomore Shawn Robinson or incoming freshman Justin Rogers. Robinson comes from powerhouse DeSoto where he led the Eagles to a 6A title and started as a true freshman at Lubbock. Rogers is a player everyone wanted in the last recruiting cycle.
Robinson is big, strong, and direct. If his start against Tech is any indication, Sonny Cumbie is going to showcase his running abilities until he can figure out the passing game. He has the edge after competing in spring ball, but Rogers is coming.
There's a story that when Mark Helfrich was coaching at Oregon, he made a recruiting trip to Southern California to see a young quarterback prospect. For decades the best SoCal quarterbacks have lined up to play at USC. Oregon thought they might have a shot at this one because he was different, a multi-sport athlete, he didn't have a quarterback guru behind him, and he didn't transfer to one of the private school powers. Then Helfrich saw young Sam Darnold throw. Once. Legend has it Helfrich packed up his stuff and walked out of practice telling another observer, "we've got no chance, he's going to USC." That's the kind of reaction you think of when you see Justin Rogers throw.
The ball explodes out of Rogers' hand via his long frame. If you've ever heard the phrase that was a "frozen rope," Rogers game film should appear on the "frozen rope" Wikipedia page. Before his injury, Rogers ran like with gears that most humans can't access. Then came a dislocated knee in September of last year and multiple ligament tears. Rogers enrolled in January, watched most of spring drills and is reportedly ahead of schedule in his rehab.
If Patterson gets any whiff that he's not 100%, expect a redshirt season. If not, Rogers might be too good to sit on. If Rogers can't go, senior Grayson Muehlstein and Penn transfer Michael Collins are serviceable, but a notch below Robinson and Rogers.
Darius Anderson and Sewo Olonilua, two outstanding backs, deaden the loss of Hicks. They form a decent yin/yang with Anderson the more explosive of the two and Olonilua the hammer waiting on a nail. Anderson is coming off an injury that ended his 2017 season in early November.
Kenedy Snell is part of an uber van of playmakers who came north from Waxahachie offseason. He's a jitterbug who's best served in scheme plays like reverses and screens. Four-star Fabian Franklin arrives this fall from Mississippi.
Receiver, in spite of losses, is the deepest position on the offensive roster. KeVontae Turpin and Jalen Reagor are both home run hitters. Reagor exploded on the scene, like Snell, from Waxahachie, as a true freshman last year. Turpin has proved over his career that if he has green space in front of him, either by return, rush, or catch, he's a good bet to go the distance. Jaelen Austin and Jerrison Stewart are back as well and will see increased action.
Omar Manning, a redshirt from Lancaster, excelled in the spring. Reinforcements from the 2018 class are on the way as well. Tevailance Hunt is a four-star freshman from Texarkana and Bryson Jackson, from Kingwood Park isn't far behind.
TCU brought in a JUCO tight end named Pro Wells. If you name your kid Champ, Blaze, Tuff, or Pro, you're really calling a shot.
On the offensive line struggled in the spring to establish continuity. Cordel Iwuagwu returns at guard after starting all fourteen games last season. Trey Elliott probably plays at the other guard and Kellton Hollins is the frontrunner at center.
At tackle, Lucas Niang could start on the right side or make the jump to the left. Iowa Western transfer Anthony McKinney or Austin Myers will work at the other tackle. Wes Harris could challenge for playing time inside as well.
This team will only go as far as their new quarterback, and a new offensive line can take them.
On defense, the losses are significant as well. Travin Howard, one of the best linebackers in Frog history, is gone along with Mat Boesen at defensive end, Nick Orr and Ranthony Texada from the secondary among others.
Up front, Ross Blacklock could be a star in the making at defensive tackle. He garnered Freshman All-America honors and Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year selection. He's on a very short list of the better interior lineman in the league. Corey Bethley will move into a starting role next to Blaylock after playing in the rotation as a true freshman. Senior Joseph Broadnax gives Chad Glasgow a swingman.
At end, the Frogs bring back Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year Ben Banogu. The transfer from ULM had 8.5 sacks included in a team-best 16.5 tackles for loss. L.J. Collier probably gets first dibs to replace Boesen on the other end.
The Frogs front, in spite of several losses, is the envy of the league, especially if Bethley continues to mature and Collier forces teams to give him some attention.
Ty Summers is back for one last ride at linebacker. He'll make up for the loss of Howard and experienced backup Sammy Douglas. Montrel Wilson has experience, and the converted safety is an ideal Patterson hybrid. He and Arico Evans will compete to start next to Summer. Northern Illinois transfer Jawuan Johnson will get into the mix in fall camp.
Speedster Jeff Gladney returns at cornerback. He'll be the stopper in the secondary this season after eleven starts last year. He's also the only known commodity at cornerback.
We tab Tony James to start opposite Gladney, but depth issues are making the picture a bit murky. Julius Lewis sat out most of last season with an injury. Four-star signee Trevon Moehrig-Woodard is a lengthy 6-2 athlete out of Smithson Valley. He may have to grow up in a hurry.
After safety depth is better with Niko Small, Ridwan Issahaku, Innis Gaines, and Markell Simmons all back. Issahaku battled injuries in the spring, but he'll be full speed for fall camp. He's a real downhill thumper. Small has 23 starts to his name, making him the most seasoned hand in the defensive backfield.
Issues in the secondary are blood in the water for Big 12 offensive coordinators. The Frogs will get a pretty nice dress rehearsal against SMU in week two. After that, it's big boy time.
Jonathan Song and Cole Bunce combined to make fourteen of fifteen kicks last year. Bunce handled kickoffs, placing 38% back for touchbacks.
Adam Nunez averaged less than 40 yards per kick last season, but opponents only returned eight of his 62 punts.
Turpin is a game changer in the return game given the opportunity.
Darrius Anderson - Running Back
Anderson's 2017 season fell short of 1,000 yards due to injury; if he's healthy that mark shouldn't be a problem in 2018.
Jalen Reagor - Receiver
The Waxahachie playmaker is a threat from anywhere on the field. His eight touchdowns were the most by any freshman last season.
KaVontae Turpin - Receiver
Turpin can go the distance as well. He's the most versatile player in the Big 12.
Ross Blacklock - Defensive Tackle
The Freshman All-Big 12 selection has it all. Patterson used to have to build defensive linemen out of different parts. Blacklock came ready to go out of the box.
Corey Blethley - Defensive Tackle
Blethley proved he was ready for big-time football as a true freshman in 2017. The sky's the limit for the former Katy Tiger.
Ben Banogu - Defensive End
Give it to Banogu, he knew he could play at this level and made it happen last season. He's an NFL 3-4 outside linebacker in the making.
Ty Summers - Linebacker
Mr. Consistency is back. The former high school quarterback will be around the ball once again.
Best Case: The offense works out the kinks early, get a huge win in Austin and picks off one of the Oklahomas. 10-2.
Worst Case: The line is as creaky as it looks on paper and the quarterback position dips significantly. It's the wrong year to travel to Morgantown and Austin. 7-5.
Circle your calendars for 2019 because by then most of the questions posed by 2018 will have been answered, and this talented group of sophomores will be ready to fill up the trophy case. Until then, there are just too many unknowns to bet on the Frogs, even though we are plenty uncomfortable betting against Gary Patterson. If he pushes this team to the top of the league again, it'll be another incredible coaching job.