Both Bill Connelly and myself took to examining the Boise State program this offseason to study their approach and strategy to building nationally competitive programs out in Idaho. We both came to similar conclusions when trying to explain their “moneyball” approach to building great teams. A major ingredient is snatching up smart, versatile football players with a chip on their shoulders and then out-working, out-toughing, and out-smarting their competition.
That sort of approach is often what people think of when they think of underdog strategies for building top teams, it’s the default template or narrative used to describe teams that are finding ways to beat more resourceful teams and it’s not always accurate.
TCU first found themselves “on the map” due to Gary Patterson’s 4-2-5 defense, which was designed to allow them to get speed, versatility, and complexity on the field. Their early success also depended rather heavily on Justin Fuente and his approach to spread offense, which proved ideal for weaponizing players like Andy Dalton and Paxton Lynch.
What’s often missed is that the key to their strategies was not in finding and developing scrappers that could out-work, out-tough, and out-smart their competition. Rather, their strategies allowed TCU to stock up on raw athletes that could be quickly trained up to play fast, aggressive, and yet sound football. Now Gary Patterson is trying to find that balance on both sides of the ball once again.
TCU Defense: Load up on athletes then figure it out later
One of the major market inefficiencies in recruiting is the small town kid who’s the best athlete at his school and is consequently used in whatever roles maximize his value. In today’s world of spread-option football, that’s often at QB, where a decent arm, good vision, and athleticism can take you a long ways at the high school level.
These kids don’t always have the resources to do the camp circuit, aren’t as well known in general, and don’t have impressive film at their HS position...but they are often good athletes. That’s very useful to Gary Patterson, who in every recruiting class is essentially trying to stockpile as many raw athletes as possible that can be taught, grown, and molded into fast-playing football players in his program.
It’d be hard to name every athletic kid that TCU recruited out of a small town high school and converted from a limited QB or miscast RB into a stud safety, linebacker, or defensive end.
Longtime NFL pro Jerry Hughes stands out in this regard as a 205 pound RB that was fashioned into a 250 pound, pass-rushing DE. Houston-area dual-threat QB Sam Carter was a three-year All-Big 12 DB playing at strong safety. The three top defenders on the roster today might be LB/DE Ty Summers (two-star dual-threat QB), LB Travin Howard (three-star safety), and safety Nick Orr (three-star CB).
These guys are all best defined by their athleticism and comfort playing fast in Patterson’s defensive schemes. The key to those schemes is the way it breaks everything down by divorcing the front from the coverage and then splitting the secondary in half.
Each unit can get their own call, which leads to a world of variety and options that Patterson’s own defense hasn’t even fully maximized yet. Patterson’s vision was that if the front six could get their own calls and maintain responsibility for the same gaps and coverage assignments regardless of what the secondary was doing then they could always have the optimal calls to stop opponents.
This also leads to a major paring down of assignments for the defenders who find themselves executing a few key techniques and concepts with the defense’s overall versatility coming from the different ways they can all be combined. That’s a major reason why Patterson’s defenses are often so strong as a unit in executing pattern-matching coverages or fitting the run as a team.
Maintaining this structure has forced some adaptation on the part of Patterson, such as playing a weak safety that can handle playing on an island more for when teams put two receivers on the weak side. However it’s very foundationally stable and still relatively cutting edge in terms of modern defense.
The search for an offense to match
The Frogs have struggled to find an offensive system that offers the same kind of possibilities for reloading and making the most of market inefficiencies in Big 12 recruiting. It seemed they had it settled with the hires of Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie back in 2014, a move that precipitated an offensive breakthrough and a brilliant 12-1 season.
The key though was that the Air Raid practice formats and improved coaching simply allowed the existing talent on the Frog roster to pull together and shine. In particular, the offense finally nailed down their blocking up front and Trevone Boykin mastered his footwork in the passing game. With a massively improved ability to execute basic spread concepts, the sheer athleticism and arm strength of Trevone Boykin along with the brilliance of outside receiver Josh Doctson made the Frogs exceptionally dynamic on offense.
As a team based in the DFW metroplex, TCU is surrounded by talented players that are well coached in spread offensive tactics. The flip side is that this is also true for every other team in the Big 12. There’s very little marginal differentiation to be had in the Big 12 from fielding a good spread passing attack, every team is generally at least competent in this regard if not downright dangerous.
The 2016 TCU Frogs did not stand out from the pack with their Air Raid passing attack and clearly missed the Boykin-to-Doctson connection that had allowed them to terrorize opponents outside the hash marks. Towards the end of the season they decided to mix in more QB run game in order to make the most of what they did have, which was a solid OL and a dangerous backfield led by RB Kyle Hicks (1042 rushing yards) but also including the reasonably athletic Kenny Hill.
Against Georgia in the bowl game they were able to do some damage converting third downs with a combination of Kenny Hill scrambles, draws, and “dart” runs such as this one:
From the action in the backfield by Hill this looks like a QB draw but in reality it’s a “dart” run with the weak side tackle pulling over and executing a lead block in the hole for Hill to follow after the initial misdirection.
Hill wasn’t a particularly dynamic runner but he was definitely capable enough to be an asset to the team on designed runs or on keeper options to punish teams if they ignored him to chase Kyle Hicks on a read play.
That’s the “dart” play again with the backside end being read by Kenny Hill like on a zone read play. When the DE goes for the RB, Hill pulls the ball for a solid and relatively easy gain.
This is the clear direction for TCU to head in from here on out and seems to be the vision that Gary Patterson has chosen by promoting QB coach Sonny Cumbie to offensive coordinator while Doug Meacham sought out a new home at Kansas.
Spread offense based in the QB run game
Sonny Cumbie was the guy who trained up Trevone Boykin to add Air Raid passing acumen to his existing skill sets of scrambling and running the option. Then he signed 6A state-title winning QB Shawn Robinson, who’d just won DeSoto their first ever title operating a spread offense built around the QB option game. For the class of 2018 the Horned Frogs currently have another dual-threat committed in four-star Louisianan Justin Rogers. The high school film for Rogers features a lot of this...
The simplest way to make the most of good athletes in simple, execution-based offensive schemes that are sound and cohesive is to build around the spread-run game via QB options. One of the major breakthroughs of the last decade has been the realization that leaving defenders unblocked on the backside to read can unlock a lot more than just the inside zone play.
Once you have a diverse run game that can attack multiple fronts effectively with QB keep options attached, the spread offense becomes very simple to execute. The defense has to figure out how to get extra help in the box to control those runs. Take the dart-read play above for instance...
It gets very complicated for the defense to match up to this without actively involving a safety and perhaps even both of them. The unblocked defensive end that the QB is reading will tend to step inside to take away the cutback lane and help spill the ball to the middle linebacker who's out in space. If he crashes too far inside though then the defense may struggle to corral the QB in space when he pulls the ball.
On the other end the defense needs the corner or free safety to come up to force the ball and make the play if the DE and weak side LB spill the ball. The more aggressively those DBs have to attack the line to control the run game the better the play-action becomes that the offense can then pair with these runs.
This is the simplest way to do offense these days if an offense can train a good athlete at QB to handle a few different reads in the run and pass and hit receivers down the field when they’re at advantage. Cumbie has proven he can do that and now TCU has a system that could help them unlock some of the spread-trained athletes in the region and gain an advantage over the rest of the conference with the QB run game.
And of course if those guys don't pan out, Patterson can always teach them to play defense.