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TCU’s next offensive adjustment

This offseason Gary Patterson has quietly been assembling the staff and players to infuse his program with the one offensive tactic that has always given him fits.

TCU v Baylor Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The greatest rivalry of the early 2010s in the Big 12 was the one between Gary Patterson’s TCU and Art Briles’ Baylor. It was an annual showdown between the state’s brightest offensive and defensive minds, played out through a pair of private schools largely considered as afterthoughts in the Texas college football scene and consequently equipped with massive chips on their shoulders. Those two teams have played every year of this decade and the Patterson v Briles scorecard read as follows:

2010: TCU 45-10

2011: Baylor 50-48

2012: TCU 49-21

2013: Baylor 41-38

2014: Baylor 61-58

2015: TCU 28-21

Those 2011 and 2014 games really left their mark on Patterson and TCU. The former launched Baylor’s magical breakthrough season in which RG3 won the Heisman trophy while the latter spoiled an otherwise perfect season and kept the Frogs out of the playoffs. As a defensive coach, taking losses where he watched his team yield 50+ points was exceptionally grating for Patterson and then there were some other issues dating back a ways that ensured those two would never see eye to eye.

Baylor’s ability to light up even potent defenses such as the 2014 TCU squad was really eye opening and encouraged other spread teams around the country (and especially in the Big 12) to open up their offenses more with aggressive vertical passing. The TCU Frogs had a tough few years there on defense after 2014 before putting it all back together in recent seasons. And now? Gary Patterson has aimed to even the score.

An innocuous assistant hire

In a media availability recorded by Frogs O War, Gary Patterson slipped in some quotes about something TCU has in the works for the coming season. First he inserted a note when discussing the challenges faced by his younger defensive additions in spring ball:

“...we’ve changed some things in our passing game, that I think have helped us, and we’re utilizing our speed which makes it harder on our secondary.”

Eventually he slipped in another hint.

“The guy that’s looked the best out of everybody has been Taye Barber, on the inside. Taye Barber. The new offensive, some of the new passing stuff we’re doing has really helped him use his speed...”

Finally he got a follow up question asking what the Frogs we’re up to for the coming season and he responded:

“The new WR coach, one of the reasons why we hired him is having some thought process from when he was at Houston and he was at Arkansas State, some of the things...both of those do a good job of throwing the football so...”

Patterson didn’t want to reveal too much more than that, even throwing in the Arkansas State reference which I don’t think is even accurate, perhaps to try and obscure his meaning. If you watch the presser you can see some restrained giddiness in Patterson’s features when he’s discussing these changes, he’s clearly excited about them without wanting to give away the game. The WR coach he’s referring to is Malcolm Kelly, who on the surface didn’t appear to be a major addition to the TCU staff.

Kelly was a standout performer for the Sooners and their leading receiver in 2006 and 2007 before heading out early for the NFL (second round pick) and unfortunately missing out on participating in one of the deadliest offenses in college football history in 2008. In 2017 and 2018 he started to get his coaching career going by serving as a grad assistant at Houston.

In that time he worked under the son of Gary Patterson’s old foe, Kendal Briles, when the former Baylor OC was the Houston OC in 2018. The “veer and shoot” offense that Briles learned from his dad is heavy on utilizing downfield passing, particularly with the slot receiver, in a manner that is hard exceptionally productive and can really unleash a speedy WR corps with athletes like Taye Barber (4.53 40 in high school) and Jalen Reagor (10.9 sprinter in high school, 1k receiving yards in 2018).

It seems that TCU has finally incorporated some of the spread-iso offensive tricks that gave them so much trouble earlier this decade.

Another transfer quarterback?

TCU’s quarterback roster has been bewildering to track over the last couple of seasons. In 2018 they added highly promising prospect Justin Rogers from Louisiana, but Rogers missed his senior season in high school and freshman season at TCU dealing with a grievous injury that caused nerve damage and “drop foot” for his freshman year. As a dual-threat with a strong arm, Rogers fits what TCU has tried to do at QB since Trevone Boykin but whether he’ll ever pick up the pace he had as a junior in high school is less clear.

They also took in Penn transfer Michael Collins that year, a tall pocket passer who ended up starting multiple games in 2018 after sophomore Shawn Robinson went down with a shoulder injury. Then for 2019, Robinson transferred to Missouri, they added another promising dual-threat freshman named Max Duggan as an early enrollee, and then they took in grad transfer Alex Delton from Kansas State. Delton had been headed to UTEP to be reunited with former OC Dana Dimel in a QB run-heavy offense similar to what K-State ran under Bill Snyder but opted instead for the opportunity at TCU. Delton has never been much of a passer and his fit in either the Air Raid offense that OC Sonny Cumbie brought to Ft Worth or the vertical option passing Kelly is bringing along is pretty iffy.

Finally, after spring practices concluded with former 5-star Justin Fields clearly groomed for the QB1 job at Ohio State, RS freshman Matthew Baldwin determined to transfer and landed on coming back to the state of Texas to compete for the job at TCU.

Up till now the TCU offense has been a largely four-wide attack oriented around normal Air Raid passing plays with a heavy infusion of spread-option run game (zone-read, speed option, RPOs) and play-action passing to emphasize the run game more than other Air Raids tend to do and in order to make the most of dual-threat QBs. To go from that approach to something closer to the veer and shoot is a natural evolution for the Frogs, who have already prized physical OL play, play-action, RPOs, and general run/pass balance. But none of their QBs were obvious frontrunners to execute this new style in the fall of 2019.

Rogers has had his injury issues hampering his development, Duggan will be a true freshman coming from Iowa ball, Collins missed the spring with an injury, and Delton has a low ceiling as a passer. That made for both a crowded room but also an opening for Baldwin to win the job should he be granted a waiver from the NCAA. Patterson in the same press availability linked above spoke strongly against the granting of waivers to transferring players, but it seems unlikely that he’d pass if the NCAA granted Baldwin a waiver.

Putting it all together in 2019

The last time the Frogs made a major adjustment to their offense was in 2014 when Patterson hired Cumbie and Doug Meacham to install the Air Raid offense. Their young offensive line came together, struggling young athletic QB Trevone Boykin started to figure things out in a stronger system, and WR Josh Doctson emerged as a dynamic playmaker. The Frogs went 23-3 over the next two seasons as a result of that move.

The circumstances are actually similar for 2019. The prospective OL took some lumps in 2018 retooling after losing multiple seniors but now heads into the coming year with some real talent, experience, and depth:

At the skill positions they have the aforementioned Barber and Reagor at WR and then RB Darius Anderson is back as well. The pieces are in place to be able to run the ball, protect the passer, and create opportunities to chuck the ball down the field. It’s simply a matter of finding a QB that can tie everything together, a task for which Matthew Baldwin is probably best suited.

We haven’t seen Baldwin in the college game much save for an Ohio State spring game appearance, the last we saw of him in a highly competitive environment was during Lake Travis HS’s state run in 2017. Baldwin threw for 3842 yards at 10.5 ypa with 44 TDs and six INT. He also ran for 425 yards and nine TDs but doesn’t have the sort of quickness that would make TCU’s zone-read game hum like it did for Shawn Robinson, Kenny Hill, or Trevone Boykin. However, at 6-3/220 pounds with experience running a variety of option schemes he might be effective in the power-read.

The name of the game for that Lake Travis team was Baldwin chucking the ball around on double moves and adjustable routes to 5-star WR and recent Ohio State teammate Garrett Wilson and 4-star Texas commit (at QB) Hudson Card.

His command of the RPO game...

...and vertical passing attack....

...probably make him the favorite to win the job in the fall before considering that he evidently felt confident enough in the situation to transfer in the first place. Baldwin injured his knee in the semifinal and attempted to play in the championship but went down on the first play, leading to Hudson Card beginning his QB career.

The way this all works together best is by the Horned Frogs finding a solid blocking TE somewhere on their roster to allow them to mimic the Baylor deep choice route game with play-action. This offense can work from a four-wide set but it’s easier to protect the QB and really work over the safeties with play-action if there’s a blocking TE/FB ancillary on the field to spice up the run game, help block nickel fronts without involving QB run options, and trigger run support fills from the secondary that opens up 1-on-1s down the field.

Assuming that Jalen Reagor as a single side receiver would tend to be able to draw bracket coverage, the Frogs could run slot choice routes all day to spring standout Taye Barber, using play-action to create space for him before Baldwin simply threw him open down the field as he raced by safeties into open grass.

While quarterback has been tricky due to all of the transfers and turnover, the Horned Frogs otherwise figure to be in an up cycle on offense thanks to their experience and talent level across the OL combined with the presence of a true game-changer on the roster in Jalen Reagor. Had they managed to find a reliable distributor this offseason to play QB that likely would have been enough, but adding a talent downfield passer to run a veer and shoot style passing attack is another matter entirely.

If the Frogs can pull this off than their 2019 season will be similar to their breakthrough in 2014.