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College Football Preview 2023: 21. TCU Horned Frogs

Mark Perry, TCU

21. TCU Horned Frogs

Expect TCU to snap back to reality in 2023, but the Frogs should remain in the mix in wide-open Big 12

2022 Review
With a 23-24 mark over the previous four seasons and breaking in a new head coach to replace the legendary Gary Patterson, expectations were muted for TCU entering 2022. The Frogs faced down a treacherous schedule and following an injury to starting QB Chandler Morris in the opener, merely reaching a bowl game represented a realistic goal for head coach Sonny Dykes. Instead, veteran QB Max Duggan powered a truly special season that will go down forever in TCU lore. After a 3-0 start in the non-conference, a 55-24 drubbing of Oklahoma to kick off October showed that this TCU team was not going to be pushed around. In fact, that win over the Sooners began a stretch of four consecutive victories over ranked foes for the Horned Frogs. There were plenty of close calls, but after finishing off Texas and Baylor in rather ugly fashion before pounding Iowa State, TCU completed one of the most shocking undefeated regular seasons in college football history. The Big 12 Championship Game was a hiccup, as they were unable to complete a thrilling comeback to overcome Kansas State, but TCU proved they weren't a fluke by upsetting Michigan in the CFB Playoff Semis. The fairytale story was spoiled in the National Championship by the machine that is the Georgia Bulldogs, but it shouldn't overshadow just how magical of a year it was for the Frogs. In a sport that is often defined by the dominance of its blue bloods, TCU showed that the "Cinderella" could exist in modern college football and inspired fans across the country that maybe, just maybe, the same could happen at their schools.

2023 Outlook
Offense: Duggan was not your typical backup, as the hard-nosed quarterback had already started multiple seasons for the Horned Frogs and proven himself to be an accomplished winner. His 2022 campaign will forever go down as stuff of legend around Fort Worth, even if he wasn't able to help them stick the landing. 

But, for as big of a loss as Duggan may be, the more significant offensive departure may be offensive coordinator Garret Riley. The younger brother of Lincoln, Garret came with Sonny Dykes from SMU and earned a reputation as a rising star in the industry. His work last fall was so impressive that Dabo Swinney came down and snatched him up to run his offense at Clemson. Dykes countered by bringing in Kendal Briles from Arkansas, a proven coordinator with prior experience in the Big 12, but it still feels like a downgrade in the coaching staff department.

The key for Briles will be getting Chandler Morris back up to speed after he missed nearly the entirety of the 2022 season. Morris, who began his career at Oklahoma before transferring to TCU, has flashed at multiple times throughout his tenure with the Frogs but has yet to put it together over an entire year. He's not the runner that Duggan was, but is a fearless downfield passer that could unlock new possibilities for this offense. Staying healthy will be the key this fall; there's no piece like Duggan waiting behind him in the QB room this time around.

Tailback Kendre Miller has also moved on, meaning TCU will have to replace the starting backfield that fueled such a miraculous run. However, that doesn't mean the cupboard is bare, as junior Emani Bailey has proven to be a capable contributor and the Frogs landed Trey Sanders from Alabama. Sanders is a former five-star talent who never really got rolling in Tuscaloosa due to injury. With Jase McClellan set to handle feature back duties for the Tide in 2023, Sanders is hoping a change of scenery can be the springboard his career needs.

There are losses to be aware of on the perimeter, including program staple Quentin Johnston, who is now with the LA Chargers. It's hard to properly describe Johnston's importance to this offense last fall; he was Duggan's security blanket, the type of reliable weapon that every offense covets. Yet, he also proved he could take the top off opposing defenses and his ability to stretch them vertically opened things up underneath. 

Unfortunately, it's not just Johnston leaving the receiver room. Derius Davis and do-it-all Taye Barber also exhausted their eligibility, leaving a major leadership gap at the position. To make matters worse, projected breakout candidate Jordan Hudson was a surprise transfer portal entrant during the spring and will be moving on to SMU. 

Those departures leave behind an underwhelming cast of characters, a group with upside but unproven ability. Junior Savion Williams likely takes over as No. 1 after notching 29 receptions for 392 yards a season ago, but the newcomers will be worth a watch. Alabama transfer JoJo Earle is a former high-profile recruit who, much like Sanders, was unable break through with the Tide, while true freshman Cordale Russell received rave reviews in the spring. Senior tight end Jared Wiley should bring some much-needed experience to the pass-catching rotation, as he's played ample snaps with both Texas and TCU.

TCU's offensive line was an under-appreciated aspect of their success a season ago and appears to be in a decent spot, although losing anchor Steve Avila is significant. Junior tackle Andrew Coker should lead the right side of the unit, while senior guard Brandon Coleman is a punishing force on the left. Expect Tommy Brockermeyer, yet another Alabama transplant, to factor into the rotation somewhere. He was the No. 2 OT in his class coming out of high school, but returns home to his native Fort Worth for more opportunity with the Frogs.

This staff did a fine job filling holes with impact transfers and getting back Chandler Morris back healthy should be a major plus. Yet, it's hard to overlook just how many important pieces moved on from this offense over the offseason. This is going to be a massive transition and it's likely there will be some growing pains, especially early on. Dykes is known as an offensive mind, but he'll have his work cut out for him keeping this group as one of the best in the Big 12.

Defense: With the offense breaking in so many new faces, there will be increased pressure on a TCU defense that ranked 95th in the nation in total defense during 2022. They simply have to get better on this side of the ball if they want to remain in the thick of things in the Big 12 and there's reason to believe they can.

The defensive line is short on experience, but big on potential, namely defensive tackle Damonic Williams. Williams was a Freshman All-American last fall and has proven to be a top-notch run stopper in the heart of the line. However, it's unclear which pieces will be surrounding him in the starting rotation. Redshirt freshman Paul Oyewale provides plenty of upside, while junior Caleb Fox appeared in all 15 games in 2022.

There's a big loss at linebacker, as Dee Winters moves on after totaling 79 tackles and 14.5 tackles for loss in 2022. Winters wasn't just a productive defender; he set the tone for the entire defense and gave the front seven a much-needed attitude. Even if the Horned Frogs are able to find someone that can get after the quarterback the way he could, there's additional value they'll be without. 

Fortunately, the linebacker corps does still return several familiar faces, notably senior middle linebacker Jamoi Hodge and junior outside linebacker Johnny Hodges. Hodges is the type of old-school linebacker that reminds you of a different era of TCU football. I see a lot of Tank Carder in him, a key figure in TCU's upset Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin all the way back in 2011. Behind those two, a pair of former SEC transfers provide ample depth in Shadrach Banks and Marcel Brooks. Brooks is one of the most fascinating athletes on the team for me, a former five-star prospect who began his career at LSU. After a stint in Baton Rouge, Brooks made a short-lived transition to receiver before moving back to the defensive side of the ball.

The secondary is what will likely make-or-break TCU's defense in 2023. There are some important pieces returning, namely Mark Perry, but enough losses that could cause some concern. Considering some of the opponents that dot TCU's schedule, they are going to need this unit to play well, or risk getting into shootouts week-in, week-out.

Perry is one of the best defenders in the Big 12, a heat-seeking missile at strong safety who was second on the team in tackles last fall. He should be the leader of the defense, with fellow senior Millard Bradford set to play a major role alongside him. At nickelback, youngster Bud Clark proved to be quite the playmaking specimen a year ago and should reprise his role. Replicating five interceptions will be tough, but the Frogs are hopeful he can round out his game and play more of a role in run support.

Cornerback Josh Newton is another key player returning to the fold, as he earned All-Big 12 honors for his performance last fall. The veteran isn't as physically imposing as some of the other top-flight corners in the league, but is the type of intelligent, sturdy defender every defense needs. However, it's unclear who will handle the other corner spot with Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson now a Los Angeles Ram.

TCU got away with playing a bend-don't-break style on this side of the ball last year but with some of the offensive questions, it feels like that mandate has changed. That doesn't mean the Frogs need an elite unit, but one that can withstand some of the explosive offenses they will see in the Big 12 this season. Developing a competent pass rush and maintaining a decent pass defense will put them in position to do so.

Special Teams: One of the most underrated aspects of TCU's success in 2022 was their special teams. Kicker Griffin Kell earned All-Big 12 honors after going 17-19 on field goals, while punter Jordan Sandy proved capable, with an average of nearly 40 yards per punt. The return game will miss Derius Davis and Taye Barber, but there's hope JoJo Earle can come in and bust things open here.

Bottom Line
2022 was not a complete fluke for the Frogs, but imagining they can replicate it this fall feels like a bit of a stretch. Things worked out just about as perfect as they could, with a path opening up both in the Big 12 and nationally, and TCU getting a few lucky breaks along the way. The reality is that a step back in 2023 is almost guaranteed, but that doesn't mean this program will fall off the face of the Earth, either. There are severe losses offensively and plenty of question marks, but Dykes' track record speaks for itself. With a decent defense and healthy Chandler Morris, the Horned Frogs can still be a major factor in the Big 12 Title race, particularly considering there isn't an overwhelming favorite in the league right now. Who knows, if things work out, a trip to a New Year's Six bowl would be an incredibly impressive encore for Dykes and company.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Sonny Dykes enters his second season as head coach at TCU, but the 53-year old has a long history with the state of Texas. He played baseball at Texas Tech and spent time on staff under Mike Leach, before head coaching pit stops at Louisiana Tech, California, and SMU. Dykes will be operating with a pair of co-offensive coordinators in A.J. Ricker and Kendal Briles. Ricker will reprise his same role as OL coach, while Briles comes over from Arkansas as a replacement for the departed Garret Riley. He's a controversial hire, but the reality is that he's a proven play-caller with multiple years of experience at the Power Five level. Defensive coordinator Joe Gillespie will run it back once more, a coach who joined Dykes staff after several years at Tulsa. 

Recruiting Breakdown
Capitalizing off last season's on-field success was the name of the game for Dykes and staff and they did a fine job, reeling in a Top 20 class. There are eight four-stars in the group, helping out at just about every level offensively and defensively. Wide out Cordale Russell is the headliner, a dynamic weapon out of Mesquite, Texas who is already drawing positive reviews from the coaching staff. Defensively, Markis Deal is a ferocious defensive linemen who could see snaps right away at defensive tackle, while JUCO transfer Channing Canada comes in at a need position in cornerback. Coming from Trinity Valley Community College, Canada was highly sought after by a bunch of Power Five programs and should acclimate quickly to the Power Five ranks.

2023 Schedule Analysis
TCU's season opener against Colorado has a chance to be one of the most watched games of college football's first weekend. Not only will the public be curious to see how the Horned Frogs follow up last year, Deion Sanders is sure to capture plenty of on-lookers as he begins his CU tenure. Big 12 play will kick off two weeks later for TCU with a road trip to league newcomer Houston, before a tricky rivalry meeting with SMU in the "Iron Skillet" game. After a soft stretch of three games, TCU's final five will determine what they are able to accomplish in 2023. First, road things with Kansas State and Texas Tech, back in Forth Worth for Texas and Baylor, then a trip to Norman to wrap it all up. Getting a bye in between K-State and Texas Tech is a saving grace, but even going 2-3 during that stretch may be considered a success for the Frogs.

2023 X-Factor: Damonic Williams, DT
Nose tackle Damonic Williams was a pleasant surprise last fall, playing crucial snaps for the Horned Frogs and earning Freshman All-American honors. Now, the hopes for the sophomore have been taken up a notch. As the lone returning starter on the defensive line, Williams not only needs to provide pressure, but play a key leadership role in the Horned Frog locker room. That's even more vital considering that there are questions up front for this team. Dylan Horton and Dee Winters took nearly 60 percent of the team's sacks with them when they departed, and there isn't a ton of experience at either end spot. Expect this to put an outsized focus on Williams and what he's able to do this fall.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 8-4 (6-3 Big 12)
Offensive MVP: QB Chandler Morris
Defensive MVP: S Mark Perry
Impact Freshman: WR Cordale Russell
Impact Transfer: RB Trey Sanders
Breakout Player of the Year: WR JoJo Earle

Five-Year Trend

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