Inside look: Linebackers
Most college football programs across the nation employ at least three linebackers on the defensive side of the ball. Gary Patterson doesn't. With a unique 4-2-5 defense, the Horned Frogs rely on two sideline-to-sideline linebackers to make plays at or near the line of scrimmage.
Under Patterson, the Frogs have churned out several NFL-caliber backers, including Jason Phillips(Baltimore), David Hawthorne (Seattle), Robert Henson (Washington), and Daryl Washington (Arizona). Washington couldn't crack the starting lineup for a long time due to the dynamic duo of Phillips and Henson, but he didn't disappoint when he earned the starting outside linebacker position prior to the 2009 season. Last year, he led the team with 109 tackles (11 TFL) and tied for the team lead with three interceptions (Tejay Johnson). He also recorded two sacks.
Going into 2009, the Frogs had to replace both starting linebackers. Everybody knew about Washington by the end of the Frogs' 12-1 campaign, but it was Tank Carder who emerged as one of the best players on a defense loaded with talent. Carder had the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of one of the most prolific defensive players that have ever suited up for the Frogs in Jason Phillips. But Carder made it clear from the start of last season that he would carry on the legacy of great linebackers at TCU. He finished the season with the second most tackles on the team with 89 (10 TFL). In addition to two sacks, Carder led the team in pass breakups and passes defended. But the defining play he made all season came when he took an interception to the house in a 55-28 dismantling of the Utah Utes at Amon Carter Stadium in front of over 50,000 fans.
But last year is last year. The real question surrounding the Frogs linebacking corp in 2010 is how will sophomore Tanner Brock (6-3, 233) do as a starter at outside linebacker. Last season, the freshman from Copperas Cove played brilliant on special teams, earning him a spot on the Freshman All-American Team. He finished with 32 tackles (1 TFL) while recording one forced fumble and one recovery. We will know right away if young Brock is up to the task. One thing that cannot be questioned is his intensity, which he displayed in delivering a helmet-less block to spring punt returner Jeremy Kerley for six points against SMU.
Depth at linebacker will be a key this season, as injuries often force lesser known guys to step up. Keep an eye on sophomore Greg Burks. Patterson loves the rangy linebacker and while not established like his predecessor Washington, Burks (6'1 222) has the potential to be special. In 2009, he showed his value on special teams, making several bone-jarring hits on opposing kick returners that stopped them right in their tracks. He was responsible for blocking the only two punts of the season for TCU, including one against Utah on Nov. 14.
Another linebacker who should see increased action in 2010 is junior Kris Gardner (6'1 235). The nephew of TCU's linebackers coach, Tony Tademy, Gardner made his presence felt big time on special teams in 2009. He finished with 19 tackles (2 TFL) on the season, with eight of them coming on special teams. He racked up a sack and a forced fumble in TCU's 44-6 win over Colorado State.
The Frogs have one true freshman linebacker in Marcus Mallet that could force his way onto the field this season. Whether or not Patterson makes the decision to put the red-shirt on the 2009 Super Teamer from Cleveland, TX, is anybody's guess. The good news for Mallet is that he gets to learn from talented guys that have had to fight to get playing time.
Overall, the Frogs should be very strong at both linebacker positions this coming fall. The bar has been raised by those that have come before them and it is now up to the current crop of talent players to determine how they want to be remembered.