One year ago, TCU’s defense was unrecognizable. Typically one of the proudest defensive programs in college football, the Horned Frogs ranked No. 73 in total defense.
TCU gave up 424.8 yards per game and 28.0 points per game. That’s shockingly worse than the 341.8 yards per game and 19.0 points per game the Horned Frogs allowed in 2014, the year TCU won a co-Big 12 championship.
In 2017, the defense is astonishingly better. Despite having played three top 10 offenses – Oklahoma on Saturday makes four – TCU ranks No. 6. The five teams ahead combined have not played a team in the top 12 in total offense. No team allows fewer rushing yards.
“We take great pride in that,” safety Niko Small said. “We’re still not satisfied, though. We want to be No. 1.”
Seeing that level of improvement is surprising for any team, but especially in the offense-happy Big 12. After TCU at No. 6, Iowa State is the second-leading team in total defense at No. 40. The difference between last and this year is obvious to those inside.
“Experience,” Small said. “Nothing beats experience. You can’t just tell somebody they’re going to be a great player and to do this and do that if they’ve never touched the field before.”
The experience has been critical to the success. Five of the top six tackles on the team are back, and seven of the top 10. The unit is a starless group – none is really an All-America contender. That’s emphasized in TCU’s “1-11” mentality, where each individual needs to remember they each need to fulfill their role for the group to succeed.
Even out of the new starters, several have major game experience. The defensive line has four new starters – Chris Bradley, Ben Banogu, Mat Boesen and Ross Blacklock. Bradley and Boesen had a combined 60 tackles in 2016. Banogu started a season at Louisiana-Monroe. Blacklock is the only true inexperienced guy.
“For a younger group, you can’t change the game plan after Wednesday,” Patterson said. “With this group, we changed some things on Friday before the Kansas State game. The first time they came out in that personnel group, they ran it. When you can do that with a defense, it makes you a lot better.”
Having such a disappointing defense last season was difficult for players.
“It’s kind of a letdown,” Small said. “You look around the walls here, there are a bunch of players who knew how to do this at the highest level. All of last season, people would call and just ask whether there are injuries or whatever, but it was just more motivation for us to get back to the standard we need to hold.”
The experience from top to bottom made adjusting on the fly easy. Teams have tried to find weaknesses early, but the personnel is talented enough that the defensive coaching staff has been able to make strong in-game adjustments.
That will be especially important against Oklahoma this weekend. The Sooners average more than 600 yards per game and rank No. 1 nationally in total offense.
“They’ll find their mismatches,” Patterson said. “How well we handle those situations, that’s the tell-tale sign. We didn’t do that on the second play of the game against Oklahoma State and [James] Washington beat us on a post route. You’ve got to understand and play the odds and be ready to go.”
TCU has already played three of the top 10 offenses in America. Two more remain on the schedule. However, TCU’s defense only continues to get better and more focused.
“I feel like we’re playing amazing for what we’ve come from and how we play together,” Small said. “We haven’t reached our potential. We have to make sure we come together because great offenses are coming forward.”
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