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2008 TCU Preview - Defense
TCU LB Jason Phillips
CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - TCU Horned Frog Defense
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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.
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
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
Weakness of the defense: Proven secondary depth,
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
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
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.
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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.
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
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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
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
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
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
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.
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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.
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.
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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
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.