Gary Patterson walked onto the practice field on Sunday unsure of what he'd find.
The Horned Frogs have played 16 true freshman this season, tied with Texas for the most in college football. Before this season, Patterson had never played more than six true freshmen.
It has just 11 scholarship seniors and nearly 70 percent of the 76 players who have taken the field this season for the Frogs have been either freshmen or sophomores.
On Saturday, Patterson's Tadpoles rallied from a double-digit deficit in the game's final three minutes to force overtime, but lost an emotional home game in triple overtime.
How his young players' spirits would respond was anyone's guess.
What he found brought a smile to his face: His team practiced better after the emotional loss than it did after a road victory at Baylor the previous week.
Coaches love to say the true measure of a team is how it responds to a loss. Patterson's got his answer in the toughest of scenarios.
"They’ve done what they have to. We’ve got to keep showing up and find a way to win, but really, through everything, they’ve handled it well," Patterson said. "They’re good kids."
Truth is, they've only had to play because TCU's faced unprecedented losses since the end of last season. The most high-profile case was earlier this month when junior quarterback Casey Pachall left the team to seek treatment for addiction after a DWI arrest. In January, four players were removed from the team after being swept up in a campus drug sting as part of nearly 20 student arrests.
One of three 700-yard rushers from a year ago, Ed Wesley, left the team for personal reasons after the spring and entered the NFL supplemental draft. The team's best remaining running back, Waymon James, suffered a knee injury earlier this season and will miss the rest of the year. Matthew Tucker missed last week's game, too, leaving much of the backfield duties to freshman B.J. Catalon.
Totaled up, more than 20 players Patterson thought he'd have this fall after the 2011 season are missing from the roster.
"Some years you just have those kinds of years. What I’ve always told them is in great programs, the next guy always steps up and that’s what has to happen, the next guy has to step up," Patterson said. "I think they’ve been good. Freshmen don’t know any better. They came in here to win championships."
Doing that in 2012 will be difficult with undefeated Kansas State looking strong in the driver's seat and TCU trying to weather the tougher back half of its schedule with redshirt freshman Trevone Boykin at the helm, replacing a seasoned veteran in Pachall.
Still, Patterson's been impressed with his team's response.
"What the kids understand is what we haven’t done as a coaching staff is we haven’t quit. We just keep coaching ‘em up and trying to find a way to win and I think kids respond to that," he said. "We’re trying to coach them like they’re juniors and seniors, get them to grow up and they have, even though we lost last week, I think we played better than we did last week against Baylor, as a football team."
The inaugural season in the Big 12 hasn't gone as planned, but there's still plenty on the table to play for in Fort Worth. Most of all, respect, and sending a message to the rest of the Big 12 that personnel losses won't affect the Frogs' ability to compete. So far, it hasn't, with wins over Baylor and a near-upset of a top-15 team in Texas Tech.
Patterson has no choice to play freshmen and sophomores now, but when those players become juniors and seniors, they'll be plenty tested and ready to chase those championships they signed up to earn for TCU.
"The kids have played hard, we’ve just got to keep moving forward," Patterson said.