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Is TCU in trouble on defense?

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South Dakota State v TCU Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

When I picked the TCU Horned Frogs to win the Big 12 in 2016 I was operating under two assumptions. The first was that the offense was going to be much better than many expected given that they were losing multiple starting linemen, QB Trevone Boykin, and WR Josh Doctson.

That proved true enough, it stood to reason that Kenny Hill was probably going to be closer to the player who dominated early at A&M than the guy who fell apart and had to undergo a rehab program before joining the TCU team. Additionally, TCU had put several back-up OL on the field late in 2015 that played well and were returning some overlooked star players that could help carry the offense with Doctson gone.

The other assumption was that Gary Patterson’s patchwork quilt defense from 2015 was going to grow back into a dominant unit in 2016 with so many key players returning. The results of week one and two is now forcing us to question assumption two. Here’s how the TCU defense has fared thus far in the year against the South Dakota St Jackrabbits and Arkansas Razorbacks:

While TCU gave up a lot of points and yardage, the yards per play numbers really clear up the picture because South Dakota State and Arkansas both got a ton of possessions as result of the up tempo pace in week one and the overtime results in week two.

The run defense for the Frogs hasn’t really been the problem as giving up 3.8 yards per carry to the Jackrabbits isn’t the heinous offense it seems to be (both their QB and RB are FBS-caliber athletes), and giving up 4.2 yards per carry against Arkansas is an accomplishment for a Big 12 team.

Where the Frogs were burned was actually against the pass, with Arkansas moving the ball pretty well in the air and South Dakota State really tearing into the TCU secondary. TCU also struggled to force turnovers in either game, the sign of a defense that is playing on their heels rather than getting after an opponent.

Failing to stop the no. 1 receiver

Only the most hardcore fans of college football or the NFL draft would know it, but the Jackrabbits no. 1 receiver Jake Wieneke is actually a very good player. Most fans are aware that Arkansas’ receiver Drew Morgan is pretty solid as well, although not exactly a player that has put the fear of God into the hearts of SEC defensive coaches.

Here’s how those two guys fared against TCU’s secondary:

At that pace over a full season, Drew Morgan would finish the year All-SEC (if not All-American) while Jake Wieneke would end up sneaking into the public consciousness as a potential day one draft pick despite his relatively low top end speed (probably around 4.7).

Both of those receivers are unquestionably good players, but TCU is going to face several more great receivers in the Big 12 and can’t afford to surrender >9 yards per target every Saturday to top wideouts if they want to win the conference.

Here’s what Wieneke and Morgan’s dominance tended to look like. Wieneke moved all over the field to run a variety of different routes, but he was often isolated against TCU’s top corner Ranthony Texada to the field. One such instance turned out like this...

...another like this...

What you see in each instance is Wieneke getting enough separation in the open field to box out the much smaller Texada (5’10”, 170 pound redshirt junior) and tear him apart in isolation.

Now observe Drew Morgan working against Texada in isolation...

...and against TCU’s second corner Jeff Gladney...

In each instance we see the Horned Frog cornerbacks working in open space without help and struggling against bigger, physical receivers that run good routes.

Are there any such players in the Big 12 that could present similar problems? Well there’s 6’1” 205 James Washington at Oklahoma State, 6’3” 190 John Burt at Texas, 6’3” 205 Blake Lynch at Baylor, 6’5” 223 Allen Lazard at Iowa State, and probably a few others that will rise in prominence over the course of the season.

So this is a real problem that will keep re-occuring if the Frogs can’t work out some solutions.

Fixing the problem within the TCU defense

You may ask why those receivers were regularly matched up in such open space against TCU’s smaller cornerbacks to begin with, but that’s the design of TCU’s defense and indeed how most modern college defenses work.

Let’s take that Drew Morgan comeback above, for instance.

TCU is playing a very conservative brand of quarters coverage in this example, with bracket safety help over the top on three out of four receivers. All that the Frogs need for this to be a nearly impenetrable coverage is for Texada to be able to handle being isolated in space to the field, but Morgan beats him. You see the same issue play out on Wieneke’s post for a TD in the first clip.

There are two potential solutions for TCU in order to protect Texada from this kind of issue. One is to put him on the boundary where he can more regularly receive safety help from the weak safety. The Frogs actually attempted this against South Dakota St:

Now Texada has some help from the weak safety on in-breaking vertical routes, but he gets beat by 6’3” 195 pound senior Jackrabbbit, Connor Landberg. Not every Big 12 team is going to have a corps of big, German receivers to throw at them but it could definitely be an issue. You need size to play on the boundary or you can get regularly boxed out for hitch routes and fades from big targets.

Here’s a glance at what TCU’s starting defensive backfield will look like against most of the Big 12 this season:

Size is going to be a problem against any team with a big, outside receiver. It would also appear to be a problem inside against a team with big personnel for running the ball but the Frogs were able to shift their lineup against Arkansas to get more size on the field. There have been no such adjustments for dealing with spread teams that have big targets on the perimeter.

The other solution they could try for protecting Texada to the field would be playing more “Solo” or “poach” coverage like Michigan State and Ohio State tend to do. Against the Arkansas play above, that coverage would look like this:

All you need to make this coverage really effective is a corner that can hold up in man coverage on the boundary without safety help...but if the Frogs had a corner like that then they could just use him as the field corner. Playing to the field is a easier than working without help on the boundary where your assignment is always within the effective range of every half-decent QB on the schedule.

So you see, the TCU defense is designed to be allow Patterson to bring help to stuff the run or deny easy throws to the middle of the field by deferring stress to that field corner. Arkansas and South Dakota St both felt good enough about their QB play and no. 1 receivers to regularly accept the challenge and were vindicated with big days on the scoreboard and in the box score.

The play of the Horned Frog defensive line, linebackers, and safeties has been pretty solid so far this season. They’ve had some typical, early season assignment errors but they seem likely to be every bit as good as expected by the time conference play rolls around. The question is whether they have the players they need at cornerback to make the whole system work properly.

Ranthony Texada is coming off an injury that forced him to miss most of 2015, promising 2015 discovery Julius Lewis was injured this last offseason and will miss 2016. If Texada can’t rediscover the form that had TCU coaches excited about him entering 2015 can Jeff Gladney grow into a corner that could lockdown the field or boundary zones without help? Or is there another option on the bench after Texada, Gladney, and Lewis?

If the answer to all of these questions is “no” then yes, TCU’s defense is in trouble.