How TCU's Gary Patterson keeps building elite defenses: Recruiting retrospective

Tom Pennington

Despite struggling to battle regional powers for recruits, Gary Patteron's ability to evaluate and target future defensive stars has helped the Horned Frogs build one of the nation's best defenses.

Last Thursday night, all the TCU Horned Frogs did was walk into Austin and soundly defeat the Texas Longhorns there for the first time since 1967, all despite missing 20 players due to attrition.

And though the advanced metrics have yet to be updated this week, the TCU defense stands to move up after the strong performance against Texas -- the Horned Frogs held the Longhorns to 13 points, nearly four touchdowns under their season average, as well as 150 yards under their season average in total yardage. Dominate.

But the Horned Frogs haven't sat atop the recruiting rankings in past years, with a top finish of 26th nationally since 2008, a year in which TCU finished an astounding 96th in the country. In fact, of the major contributors on the defense that follow, the only one who was a four-star prospect and top-20 player in Texas (or would have been, for the out-of-state players) is freshman defensive end Devonte Fields.

Here's a look at how TCU built a defense that has overcome adversity to still rank as one of the best in the country.

The undersized diamonds in the rough

Stansly Maponga, Lewsville Hebron defensive end, class of 2009

All Maponga has done while at TCU is terrorize opposing offensive linemen on his way to making plays.

A first-team all-MWC selection as a sophomore, Maponga was one of four players in the nation to rank in the top 10 in forced fumbles with five and top 20 in sacks by taking down opposing quarterbacks nine times. He topped TCU in tackles for loss (13.5), sacks (9), forced fumbles (5) and fumble recoveries (2).

Listed at 6'2 and 230 pounds in high school, Maponga was on the small side for a strongside defensive end prospect, even though he exhibited good skills like a strong motor, solid quickness for his size, the strength to play the run, and some ability to use his hands.

Considered a three-star prospect by Rivals, Scout saw him as a future defensive tackle and only a two-star prospect. Rivals did not have him ranked among the top 100 prospects in the state when Maponga signed in February of 2009.

Which schools were in pursuit of Maponga when he committed to TCU in 2008 following his senior season, only a day after the Horned Frogs extended their offer?

Iowa State and Boise State had been the two leaders for Maponga's services before his hometown school came through with their offer and he quickly ended his recruitment. The Cyclones were the only other Big 12 school to offer Maponga, as his other top offer was probably Purdue, with Ole Miss showing interest at the time of his pledge.

It wasn't just Texas and Oklahoma that missed on Maponga, it was all of the major programs in the region.

Jason Verrett, Santa Rosa JC cornerback, class of 2011

Entering the Thanksgiving game against TCU, Texas wide receiver Mike Davis had been on a tear, torching Texas Tech and Iowa State cornerbacks on long pass plays. In the previous four games, Davis had gone over 100 yards receiving in three of them and made the catch that set up the game-winning score in the other.

Against the Horned Frogs, Verrett put Davis on lockdown as the man primarily responsible for defending the junior wideout, who had six catches but managed only 54 yards, roughly half of his per-catch average on the season.

After adding an interception against David Ash, Verrett now has six on the season, tied for fourth nationally. And he doesn't just take advantage of throws that hit his hands, as the JUCO product has added 13 passes broken up to his tally as well this season.

And think he isn't physical? He's made four tackles behind the line of scrimmage in 2012 after his 51 stops last season were the most by a TCU cornerback since 2001 and good for fifth on the team overall.

Based on Verrett's production, it would make sense that he was well-regarded out of junior college, right?

Not so much. After only managing to draw interest from Fresno State out of high school, in his one year at Santa Rosa, Verrett attracted enough attention to earn offers from... UTEP and San Jose State. A visit to Fort Worth secured a commitment from the 5'10, 180-pounder.

Two years later and Verrett has become one of the most productive cornerbacks in the country.

The offensive stars

Sam Carter, Houston (TX) Alief Hastings quarterback, class of 2010

The lynchpin in the TCU defense is the nickelback, a player responsible for helping to set the edge in the running game, as well as drop into coverage against inside receivers. As a result, those players must possess a rare combination of physicality and speed.

At 6'1 and 220 chiseled pounds, Carter possesses both of those attributes in spades, even if he doesn't receive as much recognition as other hybrid players in the conference like Oklahoma's Tony Jefferson or Baylor's Ahmad Dixon.

After starting only one game in the 2011 season -- the opener against Baylor -- Carter has emerged to put his name alongside those aforementioned established stars, racking up 56 tackles, 9 passes broken up, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions, 3 sacks, and 1 forced fumble.

Consider that statsheet stuffed.

A player who moved from Sharpstown in 2007 to Katy Morton Ranch and then to Hastings for his senior season, Carter had some experience moving even before that, having moved to the Houston area after leaving Louisiana because of Hurricane Katrina.

Projected by some as a possible quarterback in college because of his athleticism and decent understanding for the position for a dual-threat passer, Carter was listed by both Rivals and Scout at that position, though ESPN considered him an athlete. The two former services had Carter as a three-star prospect.

Unlike Maponga, Carter was hardly overlooked by some of the top programs in the region and nationally, holding offers from Baylor, Houston, Louisville, Miami, and Oklahoma State before making his decision to become a Horned Frog.

When others thought Carter was a quarterback, Gary Patterson saw a potential defensive star. As he often is, Patterson was correct.

Kenny Cain, River Ridge (LA) Curtis running back, class of 2009

Though former TCU linebacker Tanner Brock received most of the national accolades among Horned Frog players at the position last season, it was actually Cain who led the team in tackles, even though he missed two games with injury.

With two games remaining this season, Cain should surpass those totals. He's sitting currently with 72, including 5.5 behind the line of scrimmage. And, of course, he's gotten in on the takeaway party TCU is hosting this season (11th nationally with 30), intercepting two passes.

Every college coach wants to recruit winners, and Cain was clearly that in high school, as Curtis teams won four straight state championships. A 1,200-yard season as a running back his senior year was enough to convince Rivals to rank the consensus three-star prospect the No. 61 national back.

As good as Cain was at running back, Patterson saw the potential for Cain to develop into an effective outside linebacker with his combination of speed and strength.

if there was one knock on Cain coming out of high school, it was probably his size -- though teams have become more willing to take outside linebackers who don't have ideal height for the position, not being the prototype has never helped any talented prospect's recruitment.

Perhaps as a result, Cain's best offer other than TCU was from Arkansas. During his senior season, he took visits to Northern Illinois and Tulane.

It only took a quick stop in Fort Worth just before Signing Day to check out the Horned Frog facilities to sell him on the program, as with several other players on this list.

At the time of his recruitment, Cain's head coach described his skills ($):

He is a guy that defensively he can run so well. He just has natural instincts to the ball. With his quickness and speed he could play as a freshman. Offensively, he is just a guy that has speed, good hands and has nice moves. I don't know if he would be just a pure tailback kind of guy but he would be an excellent one back kind of guy.

Some coaches may be biased at times in their assessments of their own players, but JT Curtis was certainly spot-on in when he identified Cain's running ability and instincts as attributes that would serve him well at the next level.

Gary Patterson was spot-on, as well.

The superstar

Devonte Fields, Arlington (TX) Martin weakside defensive end, class of 2012

Talk about an introduction.

For opposing quarterbacks, the introduction has been a rough one, as Texas quarterback David Ash found out last week when Fields gave him a nasty shot to the ribs early in the game, which may have caused the rib injury that limited Ash's effectiveness the remainder of the game.

Just further evidence that with the great pass-rushers, they only need one hit to change the course of the game. Fields has been doing plenty of that during his true freshman season -- 9 sacks, 17.5 tackles for loss, 47 tackles, and two forced fumbles.

The sacks rank as the best in the Big 12 conference, ahead of seniors Alex Okafor of Texas and Meshak Williams of Kansas State. The tackles for loss also represent the best mark conference-wide.

But was it obvious that Fields was going to be so good coming out of high school those few short months ago?

Ranked as one of the top 10 weakside defensive ends in the 247Sports composite rankings, Fields was also a top-15 player in the state of Texas, and a consensus four-star prospect. So, yeah, he had some respect from the services.

A 6'4, 225-pound edge-rushing star with prototypical size and speed for the position, it would make sense that Fields would have been a highly-coveted prospect, sitting as he did in the center of one of the more talent-rich metropolitan areas in the country. Right?

After all, the burst and advanced hand techniques that Fields has put on display this season were clearly present in high school.

Though the quality of offers fro Fields was high -- Oklahoma, Texas A&M, and Michigan were among the top group -- Fields didn't receive as many national offers of note as a prospect like Florida's Tyriq McCord, a Miami signee in the same class who was offered by all the top schools in the state, as well as national recruiting powers like USC, UCLA, and Notre Dame.

Somehow the Mississippi schools, which have blanketed the state in recent years with offers, even failed to offer Fields. So did Texas Tech and Oklahoma State and Iowa State and Texas, though the Longhorns invited him to both Junior Days that February, but Fields never showed.

Even Oklahoma messed things up with Fields, failing to capitalize on the fact that his former teammate Danzel Williams signed with the Sooners in the 2011 class by waiting to offer him until it was too late.

By May, Fields had decided to commit to TCU, giving his pledge the same week as teammate Kolby Listenbee.

Underrecruited? Not exactly, but the Horned Frogs once again played things right with Fields to the extent that they weren't aided by proximity

All hail Gary Patterson

The man doesn't get the credit afforded to Nick Saban, but his ability to evaluate and identify recruits may by necessity be stronger than Saban's -- where the Alabama head coach can hand-select an elite few from among the top prospects in the country, Patterson has rarely been able to land those players, though freshman sensation Fields is the rare exception.

Given the competition for some of these prospects-turned-college-stars, the real effort on the recruiting trail was in identifying these prospects, as a handful of them committed to TCU on their first visit -- players landed with similar ease to the recruiting efforts of Texas in years past landing commitments on Junior Days by the handfuls.

There's no question that the stability of Patterson's longtime system has helped, too, providing as it does a steady and consistent framework in which defensive plays can excel -- Patterson finds diamonds in the rough, identifies them better then other top programs, and then develops them into successful players within his system.

And when the TCU head coach landed a player like Fields, he was immediately put in a position to succeed and has.

In college football, there's nothing like Patteron's uncanny and unrivaled ability to identify and develop overlooked recruits, offensive stars, and when the opportunity arises, elite talent.

Throw in the move to the Big 12 and improved facilities? Well, the Horned Frogs may have something really brewing there in Fort Worth. Not that they haven't already.

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