Curtis Luper saw this coming. During the summer, before TCU began climbing the rankings and bulldozing teams with the No. 1 rushing offense in the Big 12, the Horned Frogs co-offensive coordinator already knew what he had.
“I think we’ve got the best running backs in the Big 12,” Luper said. “Period.”
Four games into the season, Luper has been proven right. The Frogs rank No. 5 among FBS teams in scoring, No. 17 in total yardage and No. 25 in rushing. It starts with a great backfield, but it goes beyond that.
TCU has re-tooled its entire offensive approach, from staff structure to play-calling, and the changes have the Frogs back in the College Football Playoff hunt.
Choose your weapon
The best group of running backs in the Big 12 hasn’t actually been at full strength yet this season. Senior Kyle Hicks, who led TCU in rushing and receptions last year, has missed two-and-a-half games due to injury.
Yet the Frogs haven’t stumbled thanks to his replacement, Darius Anderson, who has run for 105.5 yards per game and 6 touchdowns. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t even supposed to be the featured back.
“It’s been awesome, because without him we wouldn’t probably be sitting where we’re sitting right now,” coach Gary Patterson said of Anderson.
The sophomore is just one weapon in a TCU backfield that’s as diverse as it is dangerous.
Hicks, who’s expected to return this week against West Virginia, is truly a complete back. He had more all-purpose yards (1,483) and more rushing touchdowns (12) last year than any other returning player in the Big 12.
Sewo Olonilua has carved out a niche for himself as an effective runner in red-zone and short-yardage situations. The Frogs love to give the ball to their 6-foot-3, 225-pound back in the wildcat formation and let him bowl over defenders.
Then there’s freshman speedster Kenedy Snell, who makes defenses look silly on loop for millions of people.
“They all have their own strengths,” Patterson said of his running backs. “So what we’ve tried to do is use them all within their capacities so that we can make the offense better. It’s been fun to watch.”
The biggest coaching changes no one talked about
The Frogs made some significant staff changes on offense after a disappointing 2016 campaign.
Patterson promoted co-offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie to lead play-caller after Doug Meacham left for Kansas. Former Cal coach Sonny Dykes joined the staff as an analyst. Those moves created headlines.
But the two changes that may have made the biggest impact were largely overlooked outside of Fort Worth. Patterson gave Luper a co-coordinator title in addition to his role as running backs coach, and he poached offensive line coach Chris Thomsen from Arizona State.
Cumbie and Dykes are disciples of the Air Raid, the system TCU has run since 2014. Thomsen and Luper, a former Auburn assistant, came from schemes that emphasized the zone read and run-pass options. How would those philosophies mesh? Pretty well, it turns out.
The Frogs are running the ball more than 59 percent of the time this season compared to 49 percent in 2016. While Meacham stuck to his Air Raid principles, the play-calling is more flexible and collaborative under Cumbie. Luper and all the offensive assistants have more input in creating the game plan.
The influence of Luper and Thomsen is clear as soon as TCU lines up on offense. The Frogs are using more two-running back formations this season. They’ve also run a lot of plays out of 11-personnel (one tight end, one running back), something they hardly ever did in 2016 but is very common at Arizona State and Auburn.
“You can tell how well a staff works together by the product that’s on the field,” Luper said before the season.
Based on what TCU has shown so far in 2017, the staff is working together very well.
From unpredictable to dependable
After fielding a wildly inconsistent offense in 2016, TCU is the picture of reliability this season.
The Frogs are No. 1 in the nation in third-down conversions (63.16 percent) and No. 12 in offensive success rate. And this week they play a West Virginia defense ranked No. 115 in the nation against the run.
There are certainly issues for TCU on offense. The Frogs haven’t demonstrated much of a downfield passing game. They don’t have a single receiver with a 100-yard receiving game yet, and all three of Kenny Hill’s interceptions this season have come on deep passes. If they end up in a situation where they need some big plays, they could be in trouble.
TCU hasn’t needed to take too many shots downfield yet though, because it has yet to fall behind big. The Frogs haven’t trailed any team by more than 12 points all year.
Until they face a more dire deficit, they’ll be content to barrel over opposing defenses all day long. And that might be just enough to get them into the Big 12 Championship with a shot at a playoff berth.
The real question is if Luper saw that coming, too.