Going into the season, most everybody focused on how TCU would replace veteran quarterback Andy Dalton.
But the Horned Frogs lost a veteran player of equal importance in the secondary. Nobody talked much about having to replace free safety Tejay Johnson. They should have.
TCU had one breakdown after another in the secondary in a 50-48 loss to Baylor last Friday night. Balls sailed over the heads of the cornerbacks. The safeties had a hard time tackling or lending much support to the cornerbacks. It was one of the worst defensive performances under coach Gary Patterson, and quickly became obvious that the Horned Frogs sorely missed Johnson.
While Casey Pachall had an admirable first start in replacing Dalton, Johnny Fobbs and Elisha Olabode struggled at free safety. The two combined for one tackle in the game. When asked whether Johnson's departure had an impact on the way the defensive backs played, Patterson said, "Oh, sure it did.
"At the safety position, we made 12 tackles. You can't miss tackles and play safety. We're going to go about things, understanding those positions are up for grabs and find out if somebody else -- maybe the two older guys will step up. We have to make more plays than we did."
Johnson started 38 straight games for the Horned Frogs, providing veteran leadership. But he also played the most important position in the Patterson defense. He made all the calls and put his teammates in the proper position to make plays. He also finished third on the team with 66 tackles as an important player in providing support both against the run and the pass.
TCU went into the Baylor game with four new starters in the secondary. The only player who was a full-time starter in 2010 was cornerback Greg McCoy. Safety Tekerrein Cuba started six games last season, the only other player in the defensive backfield with a start under his belt. Strong safety Sam Carter is a redshirt freshman converted from quarterback; cornerback Jason Verrett transferred in from junior college. Fobbs, a senior, had played as a backup to Johnson but never started a game.
Patterson said in hindsight he probably should have played more safeties in the game, but this is a position in which there is a lack of depth and experience. He said they had a better day of practice Sunday, but opened up the competition because when you give up 50 points, "all positions are open."
Cuba and Fobbs are seniors, and Patterson is banking on them to play better because of their experience. But this week against Air Force, they mostly will be relied on for help against the run. The Falcons are not a passing team.
"There's no excuses," Patterson said "You've go tot be able to play the deep ball, especially the way we go about playing defense. One of the hard parts is you'd like to come back and play another passing team."
They will have another chance. Next time, the secondary has to be ready.