TCU is a classic example of long-term program building.
When the two teams last met on the field in 1991, TCU had been in the Southwest Conference since 1923, and had exactly one conference title to show for it: in 1938. The Horned Frogs made one bowl game between 1960 and 1983, and during that same stretch, they had nine seasons with zero or one SWC win. After Arkansas left the conference, TCU went on to win a share of the 1994 SWC title (as in, their 4-3 conference record put them in a FIVE-way tie behind champion Texas A&M, who was ineligible).
So it’s not surprising that TCU was left out of the big realignment when the SWC collapsed following the 1995 season. TCU was sent to the WAC: the worst fate of any of the SWC squads. But that fate ended up helping TCU completely rebuild.
Dennis Franchione helped rebuild TCU, and turned things over to his defensive coordinator Gary Patterson when he left for Alabama at the end of the 2000 season. Although LaDanian Tomlinson was the tailback on the 2000 squad, the rebuild was accomplished largely through Patterson’s defense.
By 1999, Patterson was running the 4-2-5 defense, a fad at the time: Arkansas also ran the 4-2-5 from 1998 to 2000. Back then, everyone was trying to copy Frank Beamer, who turned Virginia Tech from doormat to national power thanks to his infamous 4-4 “Robber” defense, which was basically impossible to run on. The 4-2-5 of the 90’s converted those outside linebackers into linebacker/safety hybrids and presto! now you have a defense that can stack the box against the run but is fast enough to play sound coverage.
Unfortunately, the 4-4 and the 4-2-5 were largely rendered obsolete by the rise of spread offenses, which forced all those guys out of the box, limiting the creative stunts and blitzes and taking advantage of the “hybrid” guys who weren’t that great in coverage. The cracks were already showing in 1998, when Kentucky’s Tim Couch (who ran the original Air Raid offense under coach Hal Mumme) completed 47 of 67 passes (both SEC records) for 499 yards against Arkansas - a game the Hogs somehow won.
But while Arkansas defense coordinator John Thompson (and many others across the country) dropped the 4-2-5 in favor of a traditional two-gap 4-3 in 2001, Patterson simply adapted his system.
TCU’s modern 4-2-5 is very different. It’s much more versatile against the pass, boasting a variety of complex coverages, many of them unique to TCU. But if you line up with a fullback and a tight end, as Arkansas will do quite a bit, TCU is happy to drop those hybrid players down into the box and bring back memories from the 90’s.
When Arkansas has the ball
The Horned Frogs’ defense has fallen on hard times, it seems. It’s less about scheme and more about personnel: the difference between a Mountain West program and a Big XII program is very large, and TCU’s defense hasn’t quite made the transition. Rather, TCU wins with its offense, an Air Raid variant executed by co-offensive coordinators Doug Meachem and Sonnie Cumbie.
Over its past six games, the Frogs have surrendered 33 points per game, including 41 in the opener to South Dakota State of the FCS.
When looking at these numbers, keep in mind that the numbers in bold are weighted, which means they are still taking preseason projections into account. Numbers not in bold are unweighted, so they are only based on the first game. Keeping preseason projections as a part of the process is important, because one game isn’t a large enough sample size to tell us much.
For TCU, the strength is the defensive line, which could be a problem for an Arkansas line that gave up four sacks in the opener. Actually, defensive linemen weren’t really the problem in the opener: two of the four sacks came when Hog linemen (or backs) got confused and didn’t pick up a blitzer. One sack by a defensive end came on a naked bootleg, which isn’t really the lineman’s fault.
TCU had four sacks in the opener. None came from Josh Carraway, the leading returner who had nine sacks in 2015. The 3-tech defensive tackle was the strongest pass rusher for the Frogs: starter Aaron Curry had one full and one half, and his backup Chris Bradley added another. The other starting end, James McFarland, who missed 2015 with an injury but was solid in 2014, had the fourth. The nose guard spot is manned by 300-pounder Joseph Broadnax, the only starter without much prior experience and (in theory) a potential weakness.
The 4-2-5 system calls for two linebackers, typically a big middle linebacker (think Quinton Caver on Arkansas’ ‘99 and ‘00 defenses) and his smaller, speedier assistant. Both starters are back, although oddly, starting mike Ty Summers did not play against South Dakota State. No suspension or injury were announced for the 235-pounder whose name was tossed around as a preseason all-Big XII candidate. If he does play, he makes TCU’s run defense against pro-style systems much better. If he doesn’t, that’s a devastating blow to a defense that isn’t really built for stopping Arkansas’ attack. The speedier ‘backer, 210-pound Travin Howard, led the Frogs with 10 tackles. He’s not very big, so TCU will be dependent on speed to stop Arkansas’ downhill attack. If Summers doesn’t play or the Frogs try to bring in a third linebacker, Montrel Wilson is only 210 pounds. In fact, outside of Summers, every TCU linebacker that has a career tackle weighs 215 or under.
Trying to take out Arkansas’ run game with speed (rather than size) is a mixed bag. It worked for Missouri in 2014 (though not 2015), but really didn’t work for LSU in 2015. Arkansas’ man-blocking run schemes can be confused with a lot of stunts, but once an Arkansas lineman engages you, you’re usually finished. Louisiana Tech was able to take advantage of left guard Hjalte Froholdt making his first start on the offensive line last week, and he missed a couple of run-blocking assignments when Tech’s front confused him. Veterans like left tackle Dan Skipper and center Frank Ragnow aren’t as likely to be confused by stunts. Look for Arkansas to run left and simplify things for Froholdt this week.
Arkansas’ success rate was higher in passing downs - and TCU’s was lower, although the Frogs had more sacks in passing downs (three).
In the secondary, TCU has a new free safety. The position is arguably the most important in a 4-2-5 (Arkansas’ was Kenoy Kennedy in ‘98 and ‘99), so that might explain some of their issues in week one. Sophomore Niko Small is starter. Last week, I warned about Tech’s free safety Xavier Brown, and sure enough, he had a pick on the opening drive and played very well for Tech. The same warning doesn’t go out for Small, who will have to prove he’s dangerous.
TCU’s starting safety hybrids - Denzel Johnson and Nick Orr - had five tackles each against South Dakota State. Both are returning starters. They didn’t create much havoc: Johnson shared a sack and had another tackle for loss, and Orr didn’t have any TFLs. They weigh 210 and 187, so they are hardly threats to outmuscle Arkansas’ tight ends or fullbacks.
Cornerbacks had to make a lot of tackles for TCU in the opener, which is rarely a good sign for the defense. The top corner from last season is gone. Ranthony Texada, injured last season, had six tackles, while redshirt freshman Jeff Gladley added six more, earning the other start.
Watching film, these guys had a hard time keeping up with Jackrabbit receivers, which bodes well for Keon Hatcher and Drew Morgan, both of whom are very difficult to cover one-on-one. Hatcher was especially dominant, having little trouble getting open against Tech. With TCU’s general lack of size, tight end Jeremy Sprinkle could have a good game.
I’m not sure how Dan Enos will scheme this one. Last year, Arkansas preferred a two-wide, two-tight, one-back base offense, where Sprinkle would motion up to the fullback spot if the Hogs needed a lead blocker. This year, the personnel favors a three-wide, one-tight, one-back offense, but I don’t know how well that will work against a built-for-spread TCU squad - especially after watching Hatcher and Morgan be the only consistent targets in the opener (Jared Cornelius was better as a runner, and Cody Hollister dropped two well-thrown balls). If Enos feels confident Arkansas can handle TCU’s speed against the run, then freshman fullback Hayden Johnson could see more snaps. Having a second tight end emerge would be really nice too. Maybe C.J. O’Grady or Austin Cantrell will have a breakout game.
Another thing to watch for is the lead series. This was the Alex Collins special last year: the lead draw, the lead counter, and several play-action passes off of it. I don’t recall seeing a single lead draw in the opener. Of course, Rawleigh Williams is a very different runner from Collins, and power-O and outside zone are really more his type of run. Still, I have a hard time believing those plays are just going to vanish from the playbook.
When TCU has the ball
Kenny Hill, we meet again. Hill threw for 386 yards in 2014, a game Texas A&M won 35-28 in overtime. Things turned south just few weeks after that game for the guy who trademarked the name “Kenny Trill,” and he’s now in Fort Worth.
Hill’s a known commodity: he has a big arm, is a decent runner, and has questionable accuracy. He’s perfect for an Air Raid system that mixes short, easy throws with downfield routes to receivers often streaking wide open.
The best way to stop this kind of offense is have a secondary that can play press coverage with an elite free safety over the top to clean up anything that gets down the field. Arkansas is not even close to having that, so it’s on to Plan B: play on your heels, don’t give any big plays, and hope the offense shoots itself in the foot or your pass rush finally gets there. Against Louisiana Tech, it did: all three sacks came in the second half, and the Bulldogs were awful on passing downs in the second half, causing their offense to stall without a touchdown.
Even though they didn’t give up any sacks against the Jackrabbits, there’s reason to doubt TCU’s line: four starters are gone, and they had combined for 119 career starts.
The Hogs have a real chance if TCU can’t protect its quarterback: at Texas A&M, Hill was blessed with a fantastic line. This one is a question mark. If TCU can’t stop Deatrich Wise, Jeremiah Ledbetter, and Randy Ramsey from getting to the quarterback, everything TCU does down the field gets called into question, and the complexion of the game changes a bit. Speaking of Ramsey, I mentioned in the Tech recap that my theory is that he’s going to be Arkansas’ pass rush specialist against spread teams, and the coaches had to bring him out in the second half because the game was closer than expected. He had a sack shortly after getting into the game and played very well in limited snaps. Tevin Beanum will start at rush end, but unless TCU finds success running the ball, I’m guessing we’ll see more speed rushers on the end.
The TCU run game is centered on running back Kyle Hicks, who replaces graduated 1,000-yard rusher Aaron Green. Hicks didn’t do too well in the opener, finishing with 12 carries for 59 yards (3.9 yards per carry), although that might be a function of TCU’s offensive line youth. If Arkansas doesn’t shut down TCU’s run game, this one may be over in a hurry.
TCU’s top receiver from 2015, all-American Josh Doctson (79 catches, 1,327 yards) is chasing dreams in the NFL. Still, this is a dangerous unit. Junior college transfer Taj Williams was Hill’s favorite target against the Jackrabbits, with 11 catches for 158 yards. A 6-foot-3 former four-star recruit, he’ll be a load for the Hogs. However, Arkansas typically does well against split ends. It’s been a nice feature under Robb Smith. The bad news is that covering slot receivers is usually a nightmare. Slot receiver KaVonte Turpin is the most-experienced returner, and had seven catches for 62 yards in the opener. LSU transfer John Diarse will also play, while sophomore Jaelan Austin caught a 60-yard touchdown pass. Still, despite eye-popping numbers (33 completions, 439 yards), Williams and Turpin were the only ones with huge performances, and most of the other completions were spread out. Like Tech, TCU does not use a tight end, at least as a receiver.
Three to watch
- KaVonte Turpin. Arkansas’ known problems covering slot receivers drove me to make Turpin, rather than Hill, the top offensive player to watch for TCU. Hog strong safety Santos Ramirez or nickelback Henre’ Toliver will spend most of the game matched up over Turpin. Remember, the Hogs lost starting nickelback Kevin Richardson for the season, so things will be that much tougher.
- Joseph Noteboom. TCU’s left tackle is its lone returning starter. He’ll spend most of the game trying to stop Deatrich Wise from finding Hill in the backfield. Nearly as important is the other tackle, Aviante Collins, who will meet Wise and some his friends coming from the other side.
- Ty Summers. I would expect TCU’s best linebacker to play, because TCU probably really needs him to. Without him, I question TCU’s ability to stop Arkansas’ power-run game. Even if he does play, he’ll have to play well, because his compatriots in the back seven aren’t very big.
Keys to the game
- Rush the dropbacks. Like Louisiana Tech, TCU will try to soften Arkansas’ pass rush with the quick passing game (mostly screens, swings, slants, and hitches). Still, if the Frogs want to go down the field, they’ll have to try dropback passes, and that’s when Arkansas has to get there. The Hogs were on top of Bulldogs’ quarterback on nearly every dropback pass in the second half last week. That must continue. Key stats: defensive sack rate on passing downs, defensive success rate on passing downs
- Ground and pound. Arkansas’ rushing success rate was not where it needed to be against Louisiana Tech. Believe it or not, TCU is actually smaller than the Bulldogs up front. There will be opportunities to turn this into a 2014 Texas Tech kind of game. I don’t care about big plays on the ground: just get between three and six yards on every handoff. Key stats: rushing success rate, line yards per carry on standard downs
- Win turnovers, and try to win them big. Arkansas’ minus-one turnover margin against Tech played a key role in that game. Arkansas’ offense isn’t explosive enough right now (and the defense isn’t good enough) to give an opponent like TCU free possessions. Just going plus-one in turnovers could be a game-changer. South Dakota State picked off Hill twice, and he’s been thrown to erratic passes throughout his career. Austin Allen really can’t afford any interceptions after two against Tech.