While our own Bill Connelly is really high on TCU's prospects in 2016, people around the country seem slow to realize what Bill understands about TCU (people never get it with the Frogs). One point that commentators often miss is that last year was an anomaly for the team.
Even though they went 11-2 thanks to Trevone Boykin, Josh Doctson, and a brilliant offense, this wasn't a typical Gary Patterson TCU team. See if you can tell which one of these things is not like the others in this summary of TCU's run in the Big 12:
|Year||Offensive S&P||Defensive S&P||Record|
As you can see here, TCU figured out their offense with the Meacham/Cumbie hires before the 2014 season and added their potent Air Raid system to an already very strong defense. In 2015 the offense continued to plug along under the new direction while the defense really slipped.
Why? Because they started the year with very few returning starters on defense and then immediately lost many of the key returnees and expected replacements to injury. Patterson was basically sewing a patchwork quilt on defense all year, the fact that he was successful enough at it to prevent a total defensive collapse was frankly very impressive.
In 2016 you'll see a defense that's bringing back some injured starters from the 2014 season (CB Ranthony Texada, DE James McFarland) while also returning the best parts of the 2015 defense (LB Travin Howard, S's Denzel Johnson and Nick Orr, DE Josh Carraway). TCU will likely be in the top 15 again on defense.
What many are suspecting though is a fall off on offense after losing Boykin, Doctson, RB Aaron Green, and most of the OL. I'm reasonably confident that's not actually going to happen, and a reason why is a player that is currently far enough below the national radar that you could call him TCU's secret weapon.
That's 5'9" 155 pound RB/WR Kavontae Turpin.
A tradition like no other
The dominance of the ultra-versatile "flex RB" in the modern spread era is pretty much an established part of the game at this point. Percy Harvin usually gets credit for kicking off this tradition with his brilliant career at Florida that included two national championships. He was the "lightning" to Tim Tebow's "thunder" between the tackles and he took a strong Florida offense to another level with his explosive potential from the slot or the backfield.
The reason you tend to see little guys dominate these days is simply because guys with short legs and higher turnover are capable of changing direction much more quickly than anyone else. When you combine that with explosive acceleration and physical toughness (which often go hand in hand since these guys are generally quite strong and dense for their size) you have a recipe for someone that's going to be very difficult to track or tackle in space. Add in decent hands as a receiver and you have dynamite.
The Big 12 has it's own rich tradition of utilizing players like this and you can track the winners of the "Darren Sproles water bug trophy for most outstanding tiny person" back over multiple years with examples such as Jakeem Grant and Tavon Austin.
In 2015 Kavontae Turpin provided Grant a modest challenge for the award but came up second. With Grant now gone, Turpin's got a clear path at being the pre-eminent water bug for as long as he stays in school.
Where Turpin produced
Besides returning kicks, where he produced 910 yards for the Frogs, Turpin did most of his damage in the slot. Some of that production looked exactly like you would expect, Turpin runs a short bubble route while TCU executes a zone run and Boykin flips the ball out to him if the outside linebacker doesn't play the bubble honest.
However, whereas you often see plays like that go for 5-10 yards, with Turpin any errors in fundamentals by the defense in playing the screen block or coming with leverage were liable to result in easy 10-20 yard gains for the Frogs.
But Turpin was much more than just a good constraint player in 2015, he flashed the ability to be a featured part of the offense and will likely make good in 2016.
The problem for the rest of the Big 12 is that Turpin has good hands and he already knows how to use his insanely quick leg turnover to create spacing when running routes. Here's an example of the kind of move that should terrify most opponents:
Just a quick step inside of a LB who was already playing with inside leverage and he's off, he splits two deep safeties and then he's gone.
Later in that game from the same formation he showed another quick inside move, then darted back outside for a fade route:
This formation itself always presents a ton of difficulties to defenses, particularly when the receivers in the slot positions are effective. The Frogs would run a variety of different combinations from this set, including a take on everyone's favorite two-man combo, curl-flat:
The major challenge with handling any set of route combinations from this set is how to keep Kavontae Turpin from burning you with a TD play. It's not as though TCU is lining up scrubs in the other WR positions that can be ignored or allowed to run varying route combinations on isolated defenders.
In general teams usually like to handle empty sets either by dropping back into max coverage with deep safeties on the hash marks, or by bringing extra defenders on the blitz and playing man coverage. Turpin scored long touchdowns running the quick slant against both of those defenses at different points in 2015.
Even in a dime package that boundary slot is likely to be covered by a LB rather than a DB because there's less space to navigate, but Turpin is so quick it doesn't matter. He can still breeze open quickly and give the QB an easy throw that can generate a TD.
Turpin also got some work last year in the TCU run game and demonstrated some absurd cutting abilities in their outside zone scheme:
This same skill is what enabled Tavon Austin's outrageous night in 2012 against the Oklahoma Sooners when they tried to stop the Mountaineer spread with a dime package only to see him move to RB and run for 344 yards.
Don't be shocked if there's a game or two where Turpin finds himself in the backfield, even though the Frogs are well stocked with options for replacing Aaron Green. They're going to want to give him the ball as many times as his little frame can handle.
As the focal point of the TCU system
One of the most impressive aspects of the TCU offense over the last few years has been how well they game plan and scheme to set their best players up for success. Josh Doctson, for instance, usually lined up on the right side as the "Z" receiver but the Frogs would move him around and do what they could to set him up to be an open target in key situations.
Here's an instance where they used motion to set him up to run a curl route (where he was without peer last year) and easily find open space to get open:
It was all the always-sound Oklahoma defense could do just to effectively match all the routes occurring here on the boundary. TCU short motioned the outside receiver in to run a quick crosser under Doctson while also sending Kavontae Turpin up the sideline on a wheel route (where he's lethal). OSU got the match-ups they wanted, but the difficulty of handling all the motion and options made it pretty easy for Doctson to find space against their corner.
With Turpin's ability to run the ball, run routes out of the backfield, or execute a variety of routes really effectively from the slot it should be very easy for TCU to draw up some combinations where Turpin is doing what he does best and the surrounding action serves to set him up.
When you have an offensive staff that's great at scheming to suit individual players and then you have freak talents like Kavontae Turpin, you can safely assume that they won't go over a cliff after losing Boykin and Doctson. Kavontae Turpin is their secret weapon, the ace up their sleeve that will help prevent the Frogs from falling too far on offense to take advantage of what should be a return to form on defense.