Yahoo Sports' 2019 Top 25: No. 24 TCU
Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season on Aug. 24. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and additional insight from Rivals writers who know the teams the best.
Previously: No. 25 Wisconsin
No. 24 TCU
2018 record: 7-6 (4-5 Big 12)
Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense
TCU’s history of bouncing back
TCU has always been resilient under Gary Patterson.
If you look through Patterson’s coaching record over his 18 seasons in Fort Worth, his teams always manage to respond in a big way after having a down season, usually with double-digit wins. After going 6-6 in 2001, TCU went 10-2 in 2002. TCU went 5-6 in 2004 and 11-1 in 2005. 4-8 in 2013, 12-1 in 2014. 6-7 in 2016, 11-3 in 2017.
You get the idea.
The 2018 season was a weird one for the Horned Frogs. A team that battled a playoff-caliber Ohio State team in Week 3 was overcome by injuries and was 3-5 by the end of October. TCU lost five times in a span of six games, including to lowly Kansas. But instead of wilting away at the prospect of a lost season, TCU rallied by closing the regular season with three wins in four weeks to clinch a trip to the Cheez-It Bowl. That game ended up being sort of a microcosm of the season — good defense, bad offense — but a 10-7 overtime win over Cal gave TCU a winning record for the 14th time in Patterson’s tenure.
The season took its toll. The injury situation — Patterson said there were around 20 players with serious injuries — was so bad that the program did not hold a spring game. There weren’t enough healthy players for TCU to field two teams.
The injuries, however, presented opportunities for players further down the depth chart, both in games late in the season and in spring practice. Patterson is hopeful that pays dividends for his program in 2019 and beyond.
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The best defense in the Big 12?
Defense has always been the calling card for Patterson. Somehow, despite the injuries, the Horned Frogs still ranked No. 1 in total defense in the Big 12 in 2018, allowing an average of 338.2 yards per game. That figure was No. 24 nationally. TCU was especially impressive on third down, allowing opponents to convert just 31.5 percent of the time, good for No. 12 in the nation.
Entering 2019, there is quite a bit for the defense to replace. The team’s starting defensive ends, L.J. Collier and Ben Banogu (29.5 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks combined), were first- and second-round NFL draft picks, respectively. The addition of Shameik Blackshear, a graduate transfer from South Carolina, alongside tackle Ross Blacklock’s return from injury should make up for those losses. The staff is also really high on redshirt freshman Ochaun Mathis.
Four of the top five linebackers have also departed, leaving junior Garret Wallow as the leader of the position — a group that should benefit from the return of oft-injured Montrel Wilson.
The strength of the defense is undoubtedly the secondary, where seniors Jeff Gladney and Julius Lewis could be the top cornerback duo in the Big 12. Two more seniors, safeties Innis Gaines and Vernon Scott, will also be back in the lineup. When your secondary is this good, it can pick up the slack for a front seven with some weaknesses.
Answering the quarterback question
The position that could elevate TCU from good to great in 2019 is quarterback.
TCU played four of them last year. And the guy who began the 2018 season as the starter, Shawn Robinson, transferred to Missouri. That leaves a wide-open competition, perhaps more wide-open than any other program in the country.
Patterson said at Big 12 Media Days that TCU has six guys competing to start, but that he’d like to pare it down to three pretty early on in camp. Alex Delton, a graduate transfer from Kansas State, seems like the safest pick, but there are limits to his game. And then there are Justin Rogers and Max Duggan, two talented freshmen. Rogers redshirted last year and is still not 100 percent healthy from a high school injury. Duggan is a four-star recruit who enrolled early. There’s also Michael Collins, a Penn transfer who was forced into action due to last year’s injury barrage.
Whoever wins the job will benefit from one of the conference’s best offensive lines, star receiver Jalen Reagor and an experienced group of running backs.
Biggest game: Texas (Oct. 26)
There are challenging games for TCU before this point in the schedule, especially a trip to Ames to face Iowa State, but this visit from the Longhorns could go a long way in determining whether or not the Horned Frogs can legitimately contend for a spot in the Big 12 title game.
DT Ross Blacklock
Blacklock emerged as one of the best interior linemen in the Big 12 as a redshirt freshman in 2017. The massive 6-foot-4, 330-pounder tallied 27 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and two sacks, earning Freshman All-American honors and a share of the Big 12 defensive freshman of the year award. He then suffered an Achilles injury before the 2018 season began and missed the whole year. Now a junior, Blacklock should be a key cog in the middle alongside Corey Bethley, who started all 13 games in 2018 and had five sacks.
From Billy Wessels of Rivals’ PurpleMenace.com: The biggest question surrounding TCU is easily the quarterback. The Frogs are loaded everywhere else, returning all five offensive linemen, a healthy stable of running backs and star receiver Jalen Reagor, but there isn’t a steady or reliable option to get him the ball.
Alex Delton was always more successful with his legs than his arm. Justin Rogers was highly touted after his junior year of high school, but a knee injury during the season opener his senior year still has him as a question mark nearly two years later. True freshman Max Duggan was another four-star out of high school, but has no experience.
Purple Menace’s breakout player
WR Taye Barber
A true breakout candidate is true sophomore Taye Barber, who had a catch in each game as a freshman and is electric in space and is a reliable safety net for whoever is the quarterback.
Barber, a four-star recruit in 2018, caught 32 passes for 303 yards and two touchdowns last fall.
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Top 2020 NFL draft prospect: WR Jalen Reagor
From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: Reagor is an all-around threat who is an absolute blur in the open field. But what we love about the 5-11, 195-pound playmaker’s game is that he makes his presence felt in so many ways.
Yes, Reagor is an excellent deep threat. But he also contributes as a runner (11.2-yard average, two TDs in two seasons), pinch hits as an occasional kick and punt returner (30.4 and 11.2 averages, respectively) and also can take a screen pass all the way through a defense.
Reagor’s physicality belies his size. He can jump up for 50-50 balls the way Steve Smith and Percy Harvin used to, and that has been a big part of the Horned Frogs’ offense the past two seasons with some occasionally shaky QB play. Reagor packs a lot of punch and power into his smaller frame, which will make the junior’s adjustment to the NFL (whenever he declares) that much more smooth.
We’re big fans of CB Jeff Gladney as well, but the Big 12 hasn’t produced a first-round cornerback since 2014 and his lack of great size will be a little bit of a drawback for some NFL teams.
Fantasy sleeper: RB Darius Anderson
Fans of the Big 12 know Darius Anderson’s name, but he has never had the chance to assume the lead back duties for TCU. He led the Horned Frogs with 768 rushing yards in 2017, but finished second in carries behind Kyle Hicks partially due to a foot injury. Last year, he split carries with Sewo Olonilua. With Olonilua’s status up in the air after an arrest, the speedy Anderson has the chance for a heavy workload as a senior.
Win total projection (7.5): Over
TCU has a really good chance of starting 4-0 and has a few other games where it will be a significant favorite. Win a few toss-up games at home, and 8-4 is very feasible.
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