Andy Dalton matures into leader

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Andy Dalton has nowhere to hide on the TCU campus, what with his red hair being a dead giveaway.

But Dalton is not the type of guy who would hide, anyway. Not when there are basketball games to watch and road trips to take. Not when there are kids who need some help, or a dog that needs a simple drink of water.

To put it simply, the 6-foot-3 senior quarterback is a TCU everyman.

He sits in the stands at volleyball games, jockeying for T-shirts like everyone else. He piled into a car with teammates and made the drive to the College World Series this past summer to watch TCU as it helped close down Rosenblatt Stadium. "I'm a college student. That's what's fun," he says.

He counseled two young boys with red hair who were getting teased at school because only a star quarterback could convince them that red hair is, you know, cool. He still gets ribbed for a story that keeps growing in legend, when he helped a dog drink some water after it passed out on a run with its owner.

What you see on the field is what you see off the field.

"I don't have to do any coaching of how to act off the field or on the field as far as being a leader," coach Gary Patterson says of Dalton.

Poise, however, is something Dalton has worked on since joining the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman in 2007. Several points from that season still stand out in his mind (beyond the first pass he ever attempted, a completion against Baylor). He ended up throwing 11 interceptions and 10 touchdowns, a stomach-churning stat Dalton vowed never to repeat.

He tried too hard to make all the throws, and when he made mistakes, he pressed. Young quarterbacks often make these errors. But it is the good ones who learn from their miscues without allowing them to ruin their confidence.

"It got to the point where if I turned the ball over, they were taking me out of the game," Dalton said. "I grew up at that point, knowing I want to play. I don't want to be going into the fourth series of the game sitting on the sideline. So I think that's where I was like, 'OK, I can't be stupid with the ball, turn it over, force things.' That was a turning point for me, and ever since then, I've matured more, I've grown up."

TCU went 8-5 that season, its worst record under Dalton. In those five losses, Dalton threw nine of his 11 interceptions. The low point came against Utah, when Dalton threw four interceptions and no touchdowns and completed just 44 percent of his passes.

But since that season, TCU is 23-3, having gone 12-0 in 2009 before losing to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl. Dalton has 29 career wins, the most among active quarterbacks and tied with Sammy Baugh for the most wins in school history.

With Dalton and most starters returning on offense, the Horned Frogs figure to be just as good this season. Their No. 6 ranking in the AP poll is the highest preseason ranking in school history. But Dalton is using that Fiesta Bowl as motivation. Not only did TCU lose but he struggled, as well, throwing three interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown on the Horned Frogs' second drive of the game.

"There's a lot of motivation," Dalton said. "We wanted to get to the BCS game and win it. We weren't able to accomplish that. We lost to a great team in Boise, but that's something we felt that was still empty in us. That's what really pushed us this offseason. Hopefully we can get back there."

He and his teammates don't have to wait too long to prove themselves, opening the season against No. 24 Oregon State on Sept. 4. Should TCU go undefeated again, would the Horned Frogs get a chance this year to play for a national championship?

Nobody knows. But if they do, you can bet on Dalton leading them there.

Andrea Adelson is a national college football blogger for ESPN.com. She can be reached at andrea.adelson@gmail.com.