The Horned Frogs start the season ranked No. 13 in the nation. ESPN commentator Kirk Herbstreit made them his pick to win the Big 12. TCU opens against South Dakota State on at 7 p.m. Saturday.
But at Tuesday’s press conference, Patterson was cautious. Although a number of players are returning this season, he said that many of them are still figuring it out.
“We have a lot of experience coming back, but they’re in freshman and sophomore bodies,” Patterson said. “It’s different dealing with 18, 19-year-olds and then dealing with 20, 21-year-olds.”
Four starters are returning from injuries, but Patterson said most have recovered. Senior defensive end James McFarland, junior linebacker Sammy Douglas, junior quarterback Ranthony Texada, and senior safety Kenny Iloka, were all out for most of or the entire 2015 season. McFarland was TCU’s sacks leader in 2014.
All of the starters who missed significant playing time last year came together while fighting to return to the field, said wide receiver Deanté Gray, who was also injured last season. “Through rehab, we really got to bond and keep each other’s spirits up,” he said.
Senior defensive lineman Josh Carraway, TCU’s sacks leader in 2015, is excited to have McFarland back.
“Having McFarland back is going to be extremely helpful,” Carraway said. “He’s another leader and someone the coaches trust. It’s trouble for offensive lines. They have to block both of us.”
McFarland and Carraway are preseason All-Big 12 nominees. Their presence on the defensive line could help the defense lead the Big-12 in third-down conversion percentage. The Horned Frogs were fifth in the nation in third-down conversion percentage at 27.8 percent.
Patterson said the team has finally found the offensive line depth that he was pushing for in the summer.
The depth chart lists junior Joseph Noteboom at left tackle; junior Patrick Morris at left guard, junior Austin Schlottmann at center, junior Matt Pryor at right guard and senior Aviante Collins at right tackle.
But Patterson said there could be some shuffling this season.
“Patrick Morris could become a good center, and he’s handled things when Schlottmann hasn’t been on,” Patterson said. “Now, Schlottmann can move out to tackle because Patrick can do what he [Morris] needs to do.”
Patterson is pleased with how the backup offensive line is progressing. “Lucas Niang is coming along [as a tackle], and Cordel [Iwuagwu] came along as a guard,” Patterson said.
Patterson said he has confidence in this year’s wide receiver group.
“We already had good players — Turpin, all kinds of guys, Jaelan Austin,” Patterson said. Gray agreed and said there’s a bunch of guys that could be the next breakout receiver for TCU this season.
Junior college transfer Taj Williams, sophomore KaVontae Turpin, junior Ty Slanina, and junior Emanuel Porter are listed as the starting wide receivers this season. But the depth chart suggests as many as seven additional wide receivers could contribute to the passing game.
As for running backs, junior Kyle Hicks is the unquestioned starter. “Right now, Kyle is the guy, and I think there’s a separation,” Patterson said. “The best true running back, second is probably Darius Anderson. … I think they all have their place in the offense.”
Freshman Sewo Olonilua, senior Derrick Green, and junior Trevorris Johnson could all get carries out of the backfield this season as well.
Starting quarterback Kenny Hill doesn’t have to “win the world,” Patterson said.
“I’m sure he wants to be able to go out and prove to people that he’s still a really good quarterback,” Patterson said. “I think he has an opportunity to be that guy, but he doesn’t need to do it all in one game, the biggest thing he needs to do is just run the offense.”
TCU’s special teams will be led by fresh faces. Freshman punter Adam Nunez has locked up multiple starting gigs while earning praise from his head coach.
“Adam Nunez has been unbelievable with his leadership as a holder, calming the young guys down,” Patterson said. “As a punter, he’s been unbelievable in his improvement.”
An injury during practice to sophomore kicker Jonathan Song means the Frogs will “have a kicker by committee,” Patterson said.
“There’ll be a kickoff guy, a short field-goal guy and there’s a chance to have a long field-goal guy,” Patterson said. “It’s good that we’re going to have eight games really close to where all of them can travel if we need them to.”
Patterson embraced the high expectations for his squad.
“I think higher expectations are a good thing, and I’ve learned as a head coach how to approach things, which keeps them [the players] steady,” Patterson said. “Success is more harmful than failure, and we’ve handled hearing that we’re no good better than hearing we’re good.”