2008 TCU Preview - Defense
TCU LB Jason Phillips
TCU LB Jason Phillips
Posted May 20, 2008

CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - TCU Horned Frog Defense

TCU Horned Frogs

Preview 2008 - TCU Defense

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- 2008 TCU Defense
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- 2007 TCU Preview
| 2006 CFN TCU Preview 

What you need to know:
While the defense was hardly bad finishing 15th in the nation and tenth in scoring defense, it was a slight disappointment considering all the returning talent the Horned Frogs got back. This year's D should be rock-solid as long as the ends can shine in place of Chase Ortiz and Tommy Blake, who had a down year thanks to a variety of issues, and if there aren't a slew of early injuries. The 4-2-5 should be fantastic against the run with the linebacking punch of Jason Phillips and Robert Henson getting to everything the great tackles don't stuff. The corner tandem of Rafael Priest and Nick Sanders should be among the best in the Mountain West.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Jason Phillips, 87
Sacks: Stephen Hodge, 8
Interceptions: Steven Coleman, 3

Star of the defense: Senior LB Jason Phillips
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior DE Jerry Hughes
Unsung star on the rise: Junior LB Daryl Washington
Best pro prospect: Junior CB Rafael Priest
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Phillips, 2) SS Stephen Hodge, 3) Priest
Strength of the defense: Linebackers, corners, defensive tackle
Weakness of the defense: Proven secondary depth, replacement ends

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: The only positive for TCU from the off-field issues of one-time star Tommy Blake was the emergence of now-senior Matt Panfil seeing plenty of meaningful time going into this year. At 6-2 and 232 pounds, he's a bit small, but he's extremely quick and did a decent job in six starts finishing with 37 tackle with 2.5 sack and 4.5 tackles for loss. The most experienced of all the ends, the pressure is on to become a top pass rusher from the start.

The bigger issue is on the left side where 6-2, 248-pound junior Jerry Hughes has to fill in for Chase Ortiz. He saw just enough action, and even got a start against New Mexico, to be ready, but he's not Ortiz ... at least not yet. With 29 tackles and a sack, along with three tackles for loss, he is a proven enough producer to grow into the starting role. A high school running back and kick returner, he has the speed and athleticism to become a statistical monster.

Returning inside to his spot at tackle is senior James Vess after sitting out all of last year with academic issues. A huge blow up front when he was out, the 6-3, 282-pounder should be fresh and ready to resume his role as top interior pass rusher who can occupy double teams on a regular basis. He made 32 tackles and four sacks in 2006 as he grew into one of the defense's rising stars.

At the other tackle spot is 6-1, 292-pound senior Cody Moore, who's coming off a 25 tackle, three sack season. A major factor on the line for the last few years, he has the bulk to play on the nose, while he has the quickness to be a factor in the backfield if he's always occupied by one blocker. He's a terrific athlete for his size, but he needs to do more to get to the quarterback.

Projected Top Reserves: There's a good rotation on the inside behind Moore with senior John Fonua and sophomore Cory Grant each certain to see plenty of action. Fonua was a key JUCO transfer who provided immediate depth with 15 tackles and a sack. While he's a short 5-10, 270-pound bowling ball, he can gum up the works. Grant is a 6-2, 303-pound future starter who came up with 14 tackles and two sacks in the rotation. One of the team's strongest players, he has the measurables to grow into a top player over the next few years.

The top backup on the outside will be 6-4, 236-pound junior Allen Christopher. Little used, he still made nine tackles and a sack while seeing time in all 13 games. Now he needs to become a major factor in the rotation, potentially on both sides, as he starts out backing up Jerry Hughes.

On the way is 6-2, 266-pound tackle Jeremy Coleman, a star recruit who had offers from several Big 12 schools. While he might be a bit undersized, he's lightning quick off the ball and should eventually emerge as a top interior pass rusher. Good enough to play right away, he might be too talented, and too needed, to redshirt.

Watch Out For ... Blake and Ortiz to not be missed nearly as much as you'd think. Certainly the defense survived without Blake being Blake last year, but Ortiz was tremendous even though he was a marked man. There might not be an Ortiz on the ends, but there should be a good rotation of producers who get into the backfield.
Pass rush from all four spots. TCU is always loaded with good-sized linemen who can move. James Vess and Cody Moore should be able to make plays behind the line on a regular basis as they provide a fantastic interior pass rush. That only opens things up more on the outside.
A proven go-to pass rusher. While the line relies on everyone to get to the passer, it would be nice if there was one guy, like an Ortiz, who could be counted on to come up with the one really big play at the one really key moment. That player will emerge, but who will it be? That'll be the question early on.
Outlook: With the return of Vess in the middle of the line along with veteran tackle Moore, the Horned Frogs have to very good, very quick rocks to build around. The ends will be turned loose from the start, but that doesn't mean they won't be good at stopping the run. There should be a decent rotation at all four spots with good prospects waiting for a chance to make an impact, and solid veterans to rely on early. Expect this to be one of the most productive all-around pass rushing lines in America with the whole better than the sum of the parts.
Rating: 7


Projected Starters: The Horned Frogs only use two true linebackers in their scheme, but they're really good. Senior Jason Phillips is a tackling machine in the middle with 231 career stops with 25 tackles for loss. At 6-1 and 234 pounds, he's the key cog in one of the nation's better run defenses with just enough quickness to occasionally get into the backfield. He doesn't miss games with 38 straight starts, he knows exactly what he's doing, and he doesn't miss a tackle. While he's not anything special against the pass, and he's not necessarily a pass rusher, he's good enough to get by in both areas.

Taking over the full-time role on the strongside is senior Robert Henson, who made 66 tackles with two interceptions, including a pick for a touchdown against SMU, and he should be a top producer now that he'll get more time. He has stepped in from time to time as a third linebacker in the mix, and now he'll use his excellent speed and the experience from making 199 career tackles to become a force.

Projected Top Reserves:
The top reserve linebacker and the third man on the field in certain situations will be junior Daryl Washington, an excellent reserve with safety size and big hitting ability. The 6-3, 228-pounder made 32 tackles in a backup role, and now he'll play mostly on the outside behind Henson. In a normal scheme, he'd make for a top weakside defender and he might be too good to keep off the field. He was the team's best player in spring ball.

Playing behind Phillips will be redshirt freshman Tank Carter, who's an undersized 6-2 and 215 pounder with big-time upside. He still needs to get bigger, but he's a great athlete with the versatility to be used as a situational pass rusher or an extra pass defender.

Soon to be in the hunt for instant playing time will be star recruit Greg Burks, a phenomenal athlete who might only be 6-1 and 205 pounds, but he's going to be an impact player. A former wide receiver, he might need a year and little seasoning before he sees meaningful playing time, but the coaching staff has big plans for him.

Watch Out For ... Chris Goodson. The linebacker rotation should be set from the start, but Goodson, a former JUCO transfer who started out as a safety before redshirting, should be a dangerous situational option. While he won't be an every-down starter, he could be the type of reserve who makes one or two really big plays a game.
Phillips and Henson. Watch out for the veterans to combine for close to 200 tackles. The two crusty veterans have seen it all and done it all, and now they're going to be all over the field even more as the anchors for what should be one of the nation's best run defenses.
Plays against the pass. Nitpicking time, because the linebackers don't do much against the pass by design; that's what the five defensive backs are for. Considering the linebackers aren't huge, and they're extremely athletic, there could be a few more big plays coming in pass coverage.
Outlook: The linebacking corps loses the 84 tackles of David Hawthorne, but it fills in the gap by giving long-time backup Henson a bigger role. With all-star tackling machine Phillips already in place, production against the run won't be a problem. While TCU only uses two linebackers on a regular basis, there's room for production from several other options, like Washington, Phillips, Carter and Goodson, who'll all see meaningful action.
Rating: 8

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: Three starters return to the five-man secondary led by the two corners. Juniors Rafael Priest and Nick Sanders have been stalwarts on one of the nation's most productive pass defenses for the last two years, starting 26 games each, and now they should grow into even better all-around players.

The 5-10, 163-pound Priest is the better of the two with some of the best wheels on the team to overcome a lack of size. He's not a big hitter, but he doesn't miss many open-field tackles making 64 stops over the last two seasons. Most of all, he's a demon when the ball is in the air with 19 career broken up passes and three interceptions. He's been able to use his speed to make up for mistakes, and now that he knows what he's doing, he should be even more dangerous.

Sanders doesn't have Priest's speed, but he's fast enough and is a better hitter. While not huge at 5-10 and 174 pounds, he provides a little bit of pop making 69 career tackles along with 11 broken up passes. He's a rock-steady pass defender who can more than hold his own against most number ones, and is a perfect coverman against the number twos.

The one returning starting safety is 6-0, 212-pound senior Stephen Hodge. While not the typical strong safety, he's able to come up big against the run with 57 tackles, he's more effective as another free safety and a pass rusher leading the nation in sacks for a defensive back with eight, with seven in the final seven games, to go along with a whopping 16.5 tackles for loss. The concern going into last year was effectiveness against the pass, and he responded in a big way with seven broken up passes. He's also one of the team's top special teamers.

6-3, 204-pound senior Steven Coleman is a veteran who technically should be considered a returning starter after getting the nod eight times last year. Good when the ball is in the air, he should shine in the full-time free safety role after tying for the team lead with three interceptions to go along with six broken up passes and 48 tackles.

Battling for the open weak safety job will be junior Corderra Hunter after making one tackle as a special teamer. At 6-2 and 202 pounds, he brings more size to the position than Tejay Johnson, but he's not as fast. Able to play corner or safety, he'll see more time on defense somewhere, along with continuing his special teams duties.

Projected Top Reserves: Looking for time at weak safety spot will be 6-1, 195-pound sophomore Tejay Johnson, a corner-like defender who saw a little time as a true freshman making seven tackles. A Texas high school track star, he has the speed to make plays all over the field, but his real worth will be as a helper against the pass. With his range, he needs to attack the ball and potentially be one of the team leaders in interceptions and broken up passes.

Sophomore Alex Ibiloye will likely be the first backup corner in the rotation. The 6-0, 170-pounder will be a key special teamer as well as a backup behind Nick Sanders after making six tackles as a freshman. A big-time recruit with next-level speed, he'll be on the field more this year.

Redshirt freshman Sir Demarco Bledsoe has more than just a fantastic name, he's a dangerous safety who'll serve as the understudy behind Stephen Hodge at strong safety. Expected to be a part of the mix as a true freshman, he suffered a knee injury in the season opener and was gone for the year. Fortunately, he got hurt early enough to have a year to heal.

Watch Out For ... more pressure on the secondary to produce. The pass rush has dominated over the last few years allowing the defensive backs to ease their way into their jobs. Now there are good veterans at corner, and strong safety, but the pass rush might not be as strong.
Cornerback. There are few tandems in the Mountain West better than Sanders and Priest. It would be nice if they were bigger, but they'll each get a long look from the next level types over the next two years.
Proven depth. Considering the Horned Frogs used five defensive backs, several players need to be in the rotation at all the spots, and versatility is key. There's good speed and lots of potential, but securing all the starting spots will be difficult enough without dealing with the backups.
Outlook: The pass defense, statically, finished up among the best in the nation, but it fell apart late in the year. BYU was the only team to go for over 300 yards in 2006, and it was the first team to do so in 2007 sparking a string of three, 300-yard days allowed in the final four games. Even so, this should be another great TCU secondary led by the corners, Priest and Sanders, along with all-around playmaker Hodge at strong safety. As long as Coleman and Johnson can make the jump in production and be good starters, everything will be fine.
Rating: 8

Special Teams

Projected Starters: All Chris Manfredini did was hit 47 of 54 field goals and earn All-Mountain West honors for three straight years. Looking to try to replace him is true freshman Ross Evans, but he won't hit campus until this fall. He has a big leg and finished second in Texas high school history with 37 career field goals, but he's untested. That means junior Drew Combs, a kickoff specialist with a monster leg, will get a shot to win the job.

TCU's punting was terrific last year with Derek Walsh averaging 42.5 yards per kick and putting 24 inside the 20. Redshirt freshman Anson Kelton is a 6-4, 260-pound option who was a Texas high school all-star. Booming it won't be an issue, but it'll be asking a lot for the same accuracy as Walsh.

Brian Bonner was a top punt returner who averaged 13 yards per try, and now it'll be up to explosive receiver Jeremy Kerley to handle the job. Receivers Donald Massey and Jimmy Young will try to do more with kickoff returns after an average year. Massey was fine averaging 20.6 yards per return, but it wasn't a wow area.

Watch Out For ... Kerley to be fantastic on punt returns. If he gets into the open, watch out. The key will be his consistency. Brian Bonner was always a weapon.
Kick coverage. Opponents averaged a mere 5.6 yards per punt return and 17.3 yards per kickoff return. Gary Patterson has made it a point to excel here.
Placekicker. The team is riding on the leg of a true freshman to carry the load. Considering six games were decided by seven points or fewer, Evans had better be decent.

Outlook: There's bound to be a drop-off from a veteran all-star like PK Chris Manfredini to an unknown commodity, especially if it's a true freshman like Evans. Kelton has huge punting shoes to fill with Walsh gone. The return game should be fine, and the kick coverage units will once again be excellent.
Rating: 6