The signature at TCU has always been defense, and that will never change as long as Gary Patterson is the head coach there.
Sure, the faces in the starting lineup change, as they have this season. But look at the top of the NCAA stat sheet, and there you see the Horned Frogs once again.
Their defense, which has been No. 1 in the country the last two seasons, is ranked No. 4 after three games. Impressive considering its top two players, Jerry Hughes and Daryl Washington are gone. Impressive considering two of its three games have come against opponents from automatic qualifying conferences.
Only four other teams ranked in the Top 25 in total defense -- Stanford, Alabama, Iowa and LSU -- have played at least two teams from AQ conferences. LSU is the only one that has played three in its first three games.
“We’ve played with a lot of effort and a lot of intensity,” Patterson said this week. “We’ve given up some plays and we have to keep getting better, but I don’t think we’ve played our best football yet.”
You always want to see steady improvement from your team as the season goes on, of course, and this week provides the next test. No. 4 TCU (3-0) plays SMU (2-1) in a nationally televised game Friday night (8 p.m. EDT, ESPN). The Mustangs provide the third radically different type of offense TCU has seen from its FBS opponents so far this season.
SMU enjoys passing the ball under coach June Jones, a run 'n' shoot disciple. The Mustangs do have an effective runner this year in Zach Line, at 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, but the primary objective will be to stop the passing attack.
Many of the new faces on that TCU defense are right in the secondary. Four-year starting cornerbacks Rafael Priest and Nick Sanders are gone, but it’s important to remember their replacements got plenty of playing time last season while they both struggled through injuries. Greg McCoy and Jason Teague had four combined interceptions last season, while Priest and Sanders had one.
At strong safety, Colin Jones has re-emerged as the starter while Tyler Luttrell has been out with a hamstring injury. Jones went into last season penciled in as the starter but hurt his hamstring, and Luttrell ended up becoming the starter.
Jones is tied for third on the team with 15 tackles, including three for a loss. With the 4-2-5 defense TCU runs, it’s incumbent on the safeties to make plays. That’s why three of the four top tacklers are the safeties -- Alex Ibiloye and Tejay Johnson are right up there as well.
As for the other players who are gone, their replacements have stepped up big time, too. Tanner Brock, taking over for Washington, leads the team in tackles with 19. Only a sophomore, Brock is perhaps best remembered for making a helmetless block last year against SMU, on a punt return Jeremy Kerley returned 71 yards for a touchdown.
Stansly Maponga has taken over for Hughes, but it’s Wayne Daniels who has emerged on the left side to put the stud on the end. Daniels has 3.5 sacks already this season. Of his nine tackles, six are for a loss. He made a statement right out of the gate, with two sacks in the opening win over Oregon State, helping get pressure on Ryan Katz and setting the tone for the entire game.
Overall, TCU is giving up 227.7 yards a game, and though that is ranked No. 4 in the country, it is the second-lowest total under Patterson. It’s about 17 yards less than TCU gave up a year ago.
Still, it’s only three games in, and Patterson doesn’t want to get too high on his defense just yet.
“We’re still trying to grow up,” Patterson said. “You have to grow up in the first five or six ball games. We didn’t feel we practiced well last week, so we have to come back and do a better job of that and not just do it on Friday and Saturday.”