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How TCU's Gary Patterson built the Frogs into a Playoff contender

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Despite lacking an elite recruiting class, the Horned Frogs have used strong development and a new high-powered offense to become Big 12 contenders.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

After dropping 82 points on the Texas Tech Red Raiders last week in an historic offensive outburst, the TCU Horned Frogs are sitting at No. 7 in the first College Football Playoff rankings and 6-1 overall.

It's been a remarkable turnaround for a program that went 4-8 last season to miss a bowl game and post the school's worst record since 1997. How has head coach Gary Patterson pushed TCU back into contention after suffering through some tough seasons since making the move to the Big 12?

A look at the recruiting rankings reveals a program that has only ranked higher than No. 30 nationally in one season in the last five years (No. 29 in the 247Sports Composite team rankings in 2012). This hardy is a team made up of blue-chip athletes like Texas or Oklahoma.

As a result, Patterson has been forced to evaluate early and effectively, take some undersized prospects and then develop them into effective college athletes. That's nothing new -- it's been the air raid offense installed in the offseason that has allowed the available talent on that side of the ball to shine.

Here's the recipe the TCU head coach has used to build his program.

Defensive stability

Ever since taking over the TCU program from Dennis Franchione in 2000 after spending three seasons at the Horned Frogs defensive coordinator, Patterson has been running the same 4-2-5 defense. There have been some minor tweaks, of course, but for the most part the defense looks the same as it did 15 years ago when Patterson was still an assistant.

It means that there haven't been any hiccups along the road as defenses adjust to a new scheme, but just as importantly, it means that Patterson has a great deal of experience identifying the type of players that fit well in his defense.

Recruiting defensively

TCU has been known for his ability to find multi-purpose high school athletes -- many of them overlooked -- and turn them into NFL prospects on defense.

"We have to evaluate earlier, and you have to get on kids early," Patterson said on National Signing Day in 2014. "That's one of the things we're able to do. If this process works, it's what we'll have to do from now on. The worse thing [a recruit] can say to a coach is: If you would have got to me sooner."

Since the Horned Frogs are still struggling to compete for the top talent in the state of Texas, the ability to effectively evaluate prospects is crucial. And TCU has significant pressure to find those prospects earlier than the regional recruiting powerhouses.

As a result, many of the prospects that Patterson targets come from small schools, previously played different positions or were considered undersized. Sometimes, it's all three.

Take former star Jerry Hughes, for instance. Considered a two-star prospect out of Fort Bend Austin in the 2006 class, Hughes was an oversized running back and All-District kick returner. But Patterson saw a future defensive end in Hughes, and molded him into a consensus All-American and first-round draft pick.

Current leading tackler Paul Dawson, a linebacker, has a similar story. Now listed at 6'2, 230 pounds, he was a 6', 190-pound wide receiver at state high school power Dallas Skyline with a sole offer from Colorado State before enrolling at Trinity Junior College in 2011 and then making his way to TCU. Now he's making game-changing plays like his interception return for a touchdown late against Oklahoma that helped the Horned Frogs upset the heavily-favored Sooners.

Second-leading tackler Marcus Mallett checks off the categories of receiving an early offer, being undersized and coming from a small school -- the Cleveland (Texas) product stands only 6'1 and chose the Horned Frogs just after National Signing Day in 2009 over offers from Baylor and Houston, though schools like Arkansas, Colorado, Oklahoma State and Wisconsin eventually began recruiting him.

Nickel back Sam Carter had offers from Baylor, Louisville, Miami and Oklahoma State as a dual-threat quarterback out of Alief (Texas) Hastings in the 2010 class, but committed to TCU and made the move to defense even though he was told during the recruiting process that he would have a chance to play quarterback.

Then there's junior safety Derrick Kindred, who started the last three games of last season and has two interceptions this year. He was a two-star recruit rated by only one service whose only other offer was from UTSA.

New offense unleashes talent

When co-offensive coordinators Doug Meachem and Sonny Cumbie arrived from Houston and Texas Tech, respectively, to install the air raid offense at TCU, junior quarterback Trevone Boykin was failed quarterback Trevone Boykin, having moved to wide receiver in 2013.

Now Boykin has an outside shot at winning the Heisman with productive targets like Wyoming transfer Josh Doctson (a two-star prospect ranked as the No. 268 player in Texas in 2011) and Deante Gray (the No. 91 player in Texas in 2012).

Patterson believes that the change in offense will eventually benefit recruiting.

"Morphing into an Oklahoma State/Texas Tech style of throwing offense is going to attract the kind of wide receiver that maybe has left the Metroplex or surrounding areas," he said back in February. "Now we'll have a chance to keep them closer to home as we move forward. I think you won't know that until you go through another recruiting class or two."

With the success on the field, that resulting recruiting success may happen sooner rather than later.

The current class

In looking at the makeup of the 2015 group currently committed, what stands out it is that there's not a lot that stands out -- TCU currently ranks No. 6 in the Big 12 and No. 40 nationally, pretty typical for the program over the last several years.

Among the 16 pledges, there isn't a consensus four-star prospect, but based on the recruiting track record of Patterson and the Horned Frogs, expect multiple prospects to emerge as key contributors and perhaps even one or two as All-Big 12 talents.

One prospect who got an early offer and has since seen his recruitment explode is Dallas (Texas) South Oak Cliff wide receiver JF Thomas, a lanky 6'4, 185-pounder who has since picked up offers from Ohio State, LSU, Texas, Nebraska and Louisville, among others.

Fort Worth (Texas) Southwest linebacker Semaj Thomas has also picked up offers from Oklahoma and Texas since committing last January.

The real prize may be Grand Prairie (Texas) South Grand Prarie wide receiver Jaelan Austin, who holds around 20 offers, including Arkansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Oregon and Texas Tech. He's taken official visits to Oregon, Illinois and Texas Tech, so his recruitment is far from over.

The fact that those recruitments remain contested is a testament to what happens when other programs complete their evaluations in the cases of of the first two and what happens when TCU lands a highly-coveted prospect in the case of Austin.

Landing commitments is sometimes the easy part for the Horned Frogs, while holding onto those commitments is much more difficult.

Moving forward

The big near-term boost may come from the 2014 recruiting class rather than the 2015 group, though that won't just be because the players that signed last February have already had some time to develop and become acclimated to the offensive and defensive systems run in Fort Worth. The Horned Frogs signed a school-record five four-star recruits, though only two of them were consensus four-star prospects.

Much of that talent was on the offensive side of the ball, including two talented quarterbacks and one of the top offensive tackles in the state.

The Horned Frogs were also able to pull off two major coups late in the process by flipping consensus four-star running back Varshaun Nixon from the Aggies and then managing to secure a re-commitment from Dallas (Texas) Lincoln wide receiver Emanuel Porter after he was committed to the Longhorns.

That group will form the nucleus offensively after the graduation of players like Boykin, Doctson, Gray and leading rusher BJ Catalon.

The process

The type of talent that was good enough for TCU to win the Mountain West for years is no longer enough to win the Big 12, but it's been a growing process for the program, being back in a big-time conference.

"I told you guys it was going to be a three- to five-year process," Patterson said on Signing Day. "It's about depth, it's about establishing you can do it. When we break through and win nine to 11 ballgames and we prove that we can do this in this league, then I think when you're sitting right in the middle of seven million people ... it's a gold mine. I haven't changed my mind as far as that's concerned."

Based on the 2014 results, that process is happening a little bit more quickly than anticipated, thanks to excellent evaluation and development on the defensive side of the ball and an offensive attack that has leveled the playing field and should attract recruits in the future.