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Gary Patterson prepares his team to stop Big 12 offenses by teaching the triple option

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He knows every play your offense has ever used, but it all goes back to the basics.

Oklahoma State v TCU Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

“You’re not gonna fool anybody after you play them a couple of years,” Gary Patterson said. “There’s only so many ways you can run a play or run a trick play. I just keep a running total of everybody’s trick plays. We just keep adding ‘em on every year. So you go back and you try them all out and be like, ‘oh well we haven’t run this in years’ ... no, we worked on it.”

One of the most entertaining subplots of the 2017 Playoff was Gary Patterson in ESPN’s coaches’ film room when Oklahoma took on Georgia.

“Nobody wants to play them twice,” Patterson noted at Big 12 Media Days when asked about how TCU had to play a round robin schedule and then go up against Oklahoma one more time in the Big 12 title game. “In all my years, that was probably the best or second-best offense I’ve seen. The other one was when they had Sam Bradford.”

You could just see the glee and hear the “I told you so’s” flowing from Patterson as he diagnosed why Georgia’s vaunted defense was finding Oklahoma such a difficult puzzle. The world outside of the Big 12 got a really good taste of what it takes to impress the architect of TCU’s famous 4-2-5 defense.

If you ask coaches around the Big 12 which defense is the toughest to play, TCU is the typical answer. And it all comes down to preparation.

“You better have something new, because they know everything you’re going to do,” Kliff Kingsbury replied.

“We go back. That’s why I’ve already watched our first four [2018 opponents] three times through, of all their cut-ups,” Patterson noted. “How do you prepare for two-a-days? ‘Cause you gotta put everything in that you’re gonna play, you gotta play your own offense, plus you gotta start teaching what [opponents] do, and you have to have answers. You can’t wait until the week of [the game].”

While most coaches will give stock answers about their upcoming opponents and focusing purely on “the next team on the schedule,” Patterson is open about his process.

Because he essentially runs the defense in addition to the entire team, Patterson makes sure the defense gets the full benefit of his game planning and prep work. TCU goes into spring and fall camp with Patterson plans for every opponent on the schedule. In both camps, defenders practice reps against every offensive concept they’ll need to stop weeks or months later.

“One of the biggest mistakes people make is: you don’t have an answer,” Patterson said. “And you wait until the Sunday of game week, then you want to teach your kids. We try to come up with that answer in the spring and in two-a-days, when you have extra practices, not when you get two days — a Tuesday and a Wednesday — and the other two days you’re in shorts.

“You gotta have an answer for that sooner rather than later.”

For every play that an opponent has run in the past few years years, Patterson has studied it, developed a way for his scheme to respond, and taught his players that response, all before the week when they actually zero in on that opponent.

Then there are the new tweaks he adds to his legendary 4-2-5 playbook: “I better come up with a couple of wrinkles going into the fall on defense that I did not do last year, ‘cause everyone studies us.”

TCU’s defense starts with the triple option.

That might sound like a surprise, considering what usually comes to mind when we think of old-school option football, especially when compared to high-flying Big 12 attacks, but Patterson sees it as foundational to modern offense.

For Patterson, the answer to the question of which Big 12 offense is the most difficult to defend is a little more broad. The biggest challenge is “any time they put triple option concepts back into what they do, and everybody in our league has a little bit of that.”

Patterson was referring to the prevalence of spread-option tactics, in which teams combine inside runs with QB keeper options or pitch-like pass options on the perimeter. This is why many defenses are borrowing from Pat Narduzzi’s Michigan State defenses and learning how to defend everything from a single base formation, rather than trying to match each personnel group the offense sends out.

For Patterson, everything on defense starts with the option and ensuring that they have answers when the offense hits them with any modern variation of the classic scheme.

“In two-a-days, in spring, we still work half-line option. We will never give away our knowledge of how to play triple-option.”

The half-line drill is exactly what it sounds like: half of the offense vs. half the defense, running option and ensuring that everyone knows the reads and executes the plan.

“Number one, it’s really good for defense and your eyes. We’ll do it at least three times, half-line option, in the spring, and after we install, we’ll probably do it three or four times before we play our first ballgame in the fall.”

After that, the Frogs build up their understanding of TCU’s defense and modern offense.

“There’s still a lot of people that are using doing triple option out of two-back. And anytime they run the read and they run the bubble, that’s the pitch man. Everyone’s finding their different way of running the option. They’re just doing it out of the ‘gun. If a defensive guy hasn’t figured that out, they’re probably not being very successful.”

The Frogs have a lot of work to do for 2018, replacing five starters, their four leading tacklers, and a good deal of institutional knowledge on securing the middle in Patterson’s schemes.

However, they return arguably their three most special talents in DE Ben Banogu, LB Ty Summers, and NT Ross Blacklock while welcoming in Northern Illinois transfer LB Jawuan Johnson, who made tons of havoc plays a year ago.

Their schedule will include the usual explosive offenses, plus Ohio State in Arlington the week before consecutive battles with Big 12 contenders Texas and Iowa State.

Patterson is already familiar with what he’s up against and how he’ll address it:

“Ohio State doesn’t run the read zone. They run the veer. Their QB doesn’t go sideways; they move up with the read, which is like almost where a QB is if he stepped back underneath center on the read. So you gotta understand, you gotta make the kids understand. And Texas does the same thing [under head coach Tom Herman, a former Urban Meyer OC]. They got a lotta veer scheme, more or as much as they have zone-read scheme.”

You see a modern spread attack from the shotgun, but Patterson just sees another option offense, like the countless ones he has taught his defenders to stuff over the years.