NCF Nation: Jason Teague

LOS ANGELES -- TCU free safety Tejay Johnson remembers a 6-foot-2 wide receiver showing up as a freshman, intent on becoming a star playmaker on offense. Johnson stunned the youngster by telling him his future: "You're going to be a safety."

Players who sign up with the Horned Frogs and coach Gary Patterson often learn that their high school position matters about as much as their astrological sign. That's one of the secrets to the program's sustained success. Patterson and his staff scour Texas for athletes first and figure out where to put them later.

"The one thing that we always look at is, can the young man run?'" defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas said. "And if he can, then that's a good basis to start for a lot of positions."

[+] EnlargeTejay Johnson
Dale Zanine/US PresswireTejay Johnson is the quarterback of a TCU defense made up players who have switched from other positions.
That philosophy is a big reason why the defense has consistently ranked as one of the nation's best, despite featuring mostly under-the-radar recruits. Patterson and his assistants have an uncanny ability to identify athletes and then teach them how to play defense, if necessary. Current NFL linebacker Stephen Hodge was converted from a high school quarterback to a safety for the Frogs. Last year's All-American defensive end, Jerry Hughes, starred at running back in high school.

Examples abound on this year's team as well. Safety Colin Jones was a prep running back. Starting cornerbacks Jason Teague and Greg McCoy were high school receivers. Defensive tackle Cory Grant came in as a tight end. Linebacker Tank Carder was known for being a former BMX world champion. Matt Anderson entered college as a safety and is now a backup defensive lineman.

"I honestly don't know how Coach P does that," senior defensive end Wayne Daniels said. "I don't think I've ever seen him miss with a position change."

Everything's bigger in Texas? It's more like everything's faster in Fort Worth. Patterson will gladly sacrifice a few inches of height and 20 or more pounds per player in exchange for speed. His 4-2-5 defense is by definition built on swiftness over bulk, with three safeties and one fewer linebacker on the field than the normal 4-3 alignment.

Some of the reason for playing a 4-2-5 is by necessity, Bumpas said. There are more cornerbacks and safeties out there than big guys who can play linebacker, and even in the talent-rich state of Texas, TCU often has to comb through the prospects that Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M don't want. Those schools usually want the big guys.

"We really look for potential, probably more so than a finished product," Bumpas said.

The 4-2-5 is a perfect base defense against spread offenses, as the Horned Frogs are basically in nickel all of the time. Of course, that might not be an advantage in Saturday's Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio; Wisconsin's powerful attack is about as far away from a spread as you can find.

The keys to the 4-2-5 include flexibility and individual responsibility. TCU can put two safeties on one side of the field, bring one or two down for help against the run or send them on blitzes. The defensive front does a lot of shifting, and the pass coverage is divided into two halves of the field. Free safety Johnson is the quarterback of the defense, and weak safety Alex Ibiloye will make calls for coverage on his side.

"Free safety is definitely the hardest position," Carder said. "Coach Patterson gives us three or four different calls, and we've got to choose which one it is. We have a lot of responsibility to make the right calls, but they teach us well and line us up in the right spots."

At the end of each week, Patterson tests each defensive player on their assignments and coverages. He'll show a play on a video screen, pause it, then force each guy to show with a laser pointer exactly what his responsibility is in that situation.

"It's pretty intense," Jones said. "You get some instant feedback, and it's usually pretty negative if you mess up."

The Horned Frogs don't seem to mess up too much on Saturdays. Their defense has led the nation in yards allowed for the past three years and ranks No. 1 this year in points surrendered at just 11.4 per game. It's a senior-laden group that knows this system intimately.

"Structurally, they're a little bit different than what we see," Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said. "But what makes it different is how they play it. They play it really well, not just this year but for many years. They've got athletes that can move, they also know where they're going and what they're doing, so they don't play with hesitation."

Some incoming TCU players, like that freshman wide receiver, might hesitate at switching to a new position. But Johnson said that like most, the freshman quickly realized it was his best chance to get on the field and contribute.

At this point, why would anyone question TCU's winning formula?
The signature at TCU has always been defense, and that will never change as long as Gary Patterson is the head coach there.

Sure, the faces in the starting lineup change, as they have this season. But look at the top of the NCAA stat sheet, and there you see the Horned Frogs once again.

Their defense, which has been No. 1 in the country the last two seasons, is ranked No. 4 after three games. Impressive considering its top two players, Jerry Hughes and Daryl Washington are gone. Impressive considering two of its three games have come against opponents from automatic qualifying conferences.

Only four other teams ranked in the Top 25 in total defense -- Stanford, Alabama, Iowa and LSU -- have played at least two teams from AQ conferences. LSU is the only one that has played three in its first three games.

[+] EnlargeTanner Brock
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesTanner Brock leads TCU in tackles with 19. TCU's defense is again one of college football's best.
“We’ve played with a lot of effort and a lot of intensity,” Patterson said this week. “We’ve given up some plays and we have to keep getting better, but I don’t think we’ve played our best football yet.”

You always want to see steady improvement from your team as the season goes on, of course, and this week provides the next test. No. 4 TCU (3-0) plays SMU (2-1) in a nationally televised game Friday night (8 p.m. EDT, ESPN). The Mustangs provide the third radically different type of offense TCU has seen from its FBS opponents so far this season.

SMU enjoys passing the ball under coach June Jones, a run 'n' shoot disciple. The Mustangs do have an effective runner this year in Zach Line, at 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, but the primary objective will be to stop the passing attack.

Many of the new faces on that TCU defense are right in the secondary. Four-year starting cornerbacks Rafael Priest and Nick Sanders are gone, but it’s important to remember their replacements got plenty of playing time last season while they both struggled through injuries. Greg McCoy and Jason Teague had four combined interceptions last season, while Priest and Sanders had one.

At strong safety, Colin Jones has re-emerged as the starter while Tyler Luttrell has been out with a hamstring injury. Jones went into last season penciled in as the starter but hurt his hamstring, and Luttrell ended up becoming the starter.

Jones is tied for third on the team with 15 tackles, including three for a loss. With the 4-2-5 defense TCU runs, it’s incumbent on the safeties to make plays. That’s why three of the four top tacklers are the safeties -- Alex Ibiloye and Tejay Johnson are right up there as well.

As for the other players who are gone, their replacements have stepped up big time, too. Tanner Brock, taking over for Washington, leads the team in tackles with 19. Only a sophomore, Brock is perhaps best remembered for making a helmetless block last year against SMU, on a punt return Jeremy Kerley returned 71 yards for a touchdown.

Stansly Maponga has taken over for Hughes, but it’s Wayne Daniels who has emerged on the left side to put the stud on the end. Daniels has 3.5 sacks already this season. Of his nine tackles, six are for a loss. He made a statement right out of the gate, with two sacks in the opening win over Oregon State, helping get pressure on Ryan Katz and setting the tone for the entire game.

Overall, TCU is giving up 227.7 yards a game, and though that is ranked No. 4 in the country, it is the second-lowest total under Patterson. It’s about 17 yards less than TCU gave up a year ago.

Still, it’s only three games in, and Patterson doesn’t want to get too high on his defense just yet.

“We’re still trying to grow up,” Patterson said. “You have to grow up in the first five or six ball games. We didn’t feel we practiced well last week, so we have to come back and do a better job of that and not just do it on Friday and Saturday.”