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College Sports: 5 burning offseason questions for TCU football: Could Horned Frogs make at run at Alabama QB Jalen Hurts?

The offseason has arrived for TCU football after Gary Patterson and the Horned Frogs rallied to win four of their final five games — including a wild 10-7 victory over Cal in the Cheez-It Bowl — to finish the 2018 campaign 7-6. 

As the calendars flip to 2019, here are five burning questions for TCU moving forward. 

What does the future hold at QB?

While TCU isn’t necessarily dry of potential talent at quarterback, a cloud of uncertainty still looms overhead following Shawn Robinson’s decision last month to transfer from the program to Missouri. The former four-star prospect and DeSoto High School state champion had been heralded as the quarterback of the future for TCU after winning the starting job this past season and accounting for five touchdowns in the team’s season opener vs. Southern, but turnovers, a season-ending shoulder injury and other factors ultimately brought an abrupt end to the Robinson era of Horned Frog football as the offense struggled to produce numbers.

With the once-assumed starter for the 2019 campaign now gone from Fort Worth, offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie finds himself in an interesting situation as TCU decides who will be taking the snaps next fall. The Horned Frogs  are set to have a pair of youthful four-star prospects — redshirt freshman Justin Rogers and incoming freshman Max Duggan — but neither have proven themselves at the collegiate level after remarkable high school careers. Rogers, the highest-rated prospect to ever sign with TCU, is also dealing with a drop-foot condition that emerged during his recovery from a significant knee injury he sustained as a high school senior in 2017. 

In a twist of fate, rising junior and former Ivy League transfer Michael Collins is shaping up to be the most experienced quarterback on TCU’s roster heading into the 2019 campaign. Collins passed for a season-high 351 yards and accounted for three touchdowns during the Horned Frogs’ 27-26 loss to Kansas on Oct. 27, but led TCU to just 14 and 10 points, respectively, in his other two full games played against Kansas State and West Virginia.

Could TCU make a run at Alabama QB
Jalen Hurts as a graduate transfer? 

If neither Collins, Rogers or Duggan is deemed ready to take over the reins as starting quarterback, the other option for the Horned Frogs is to go after a graduate transfer who could take over the job next fall. And given the current quarterback situation at the No. 1 college football program in the country, TCU may just be able to make a big splash. 

That would be none other than Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, who led the Crimson Tide to back-to-back national championship game appearances as the Crimson Tide’s starter during both the 2016 and 2017 seasons before being benched in favor of Tua Tagovailoa midway through last year’s national title game victory vs. Georgia. 

With Tagovailoa taking over the starting job and national limelight in Tuscaloosa this past fall en route to a fourth straight national title game trip for Alabama and finishing as the Heisman Trophy runner-up, Hurts — despite leading the Crimson Tide to a comeback victory over Georgia in the SEC Championship Game in relief of an injured Tagovailoa — seems poised to take his talents elsewhere in 2019. Bleacher Report named TCU as the No. 2 most likely destination for Hurts in the event that he transfers, so don’t call the idea of Hurts to Fort Worth too far-fetched. 

Can the offense come back to life
… and hold onto the football?

While the sheer amount of injuries that TCU encountered in 2018 on both sides of the ball shouldn’t be overlooked, the Horned Frogs’ offensive struggles began to surface before the biggest hits came — as early as the team’s 31-16 loss to Texas on Sept. 22. TCU committed four turnovers in that contest and would fail to reach the 20-point mark six more times — including the Cheez-It Bowl — before the season came to an end. The result? The Horned Frogs finished the season with the worst scoring offense in the Big 12 with an average of 19 points per game.

While quarterback play was, and will again be a determining factor in how many points TCU can post on a weekly basis, ball security was just as much of an issue when it came to the Horned Frogs’ scoring woes in 2018, as TCU ventured near the bottom of the entire FBS in turnover margin toward the middle of the season. The Horned Frogs bounced back by winning the turnover battle in four of their last five games — all four games which they won — but still finished the season minus-5 in turnover margin after the early-season hole they dug themselves into. 

As spring practice eventually rolls around, turnovers will be a major point of emphasis for TCU after what transpired in the fall, so don’t expect the issue to be as prevalent in 2019. And when it comes to points, both running backs Sewo Olonilua and Darius Anderson will be back with even more experience for their senior seasons. Rising junior Jalen Reagor will also look to build off a record-setting 2018 campaign in which he caught for a touchdown in a TCU-record seven straight games. But in the grand scheme, the Horned Frogs will need to average far more than 19 points a game if they intend to be competitive in a Big 12 Conference that lives and dies by offense each week.

Who will step up on the defensive line? 

When it comes to graduations, the defensive line is set to take one of the biggest hits. The Horned Frogs lose two key defensive ends in Ben Banogu and L.J. Collier, the former of which earned Big 12 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year Honors in 2018 before ending the year with 57 total tackles and 8.5 sacks. Also gone is the versatile Ty Summers — the Horned Frogs’ second-leading all-time tackler in the Gary Patterson era (318) — who spent the season rotating between linebacker and defensive end as injuries mounted for TCU.

At a glance, defensive tackle Ross Blacklock — who missed the entire 2018 season after suffering a non-contact injury in preseason camp — is poised to lead the charge up front when it comes to experience, but others will be forced to fill in the void left behind by Banogu, Collier and others. Thankfully, Patterson is no stranger to transforming under-the-radar talent into All-Big 12 talent, and that may just have to be the case for TCU again in 2019. Rising sophomore defensive end Ochaun Mathis, who Patterson said during his radio show in October “might be before he’s done the best defensive end that ever played here” appears to be headed for significant playing time on the unit. Defensive tackles Terrell Cooper and Izaih Filikitonga and defensive end Brandon Bowen will also be names to keep an eye on entering spring practice. 

A shakeup in the secondary? 

Like the defensive line, TCU’s secondary is also set to be hit by several departures of graduating players this offseason. Veteran safety Niko Small, who finished the year with 23 tackles and an interception in just seven games (injury), is the most noteworthy loss, and he’s not alone as safeties Markell Simmons and Ridwan Issahaku also fall into the same boat. The Horned Frogs have less to worry about at cornerback as Julius Lewis and Jeff Gladney — the latter who finished 2018 with 41 total tackles and a pair of interceptions — are set to return for their senior seasons. 

At safety — a position that once had seven players simultaneously sidelined by injuries at one point in 2018 — rising senior Innis Gaines will likely be leading the charge with 31 tackles, six pass breakups and an interception this past fall before going down with a season-ending injury in mid-October. Vernon Scott will also be back for his senior season, but a number of rising sophomore safeties — the highly-praised Trevon Moehrig-Woodard among them — will have a chance to impress Patterson and Co. during the offseason. How the group adjusts will ultimately dictate whether or not TCU can once again boast the Big 12’s top-rated pass defense next season.

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