Things are not what they seem around this purple-hued program in the heart of the Metroplex. Take TCU's mascot, the horned frog—not a frog at all, it turns out, but a spiny lizard with a "third eye," capable, when angered, of projecting a stream of blood through a duct on its scaly head.
Take also coach Gary Patterson, whose glowering intensity on the sideline sometimes suggests that he may be on the verge of a similar eruption. But there's more to the 49-year-old Patterson than meets the third eye. He is a guitar-picking, envelope-pushing radical whose 4-2-5 defensive scheme might be the antidote to the spread offenses now flourishing across the college football landscape.
And take TCU's gleaming, recently renovated football facilities: the high-tech players' lounge and team meeting room; the vast new Sam Baugh indoor practice structure. They are actually parts of a secret laboratory in which a series of remarkable transformations has taken place. Within those walls, you see, Patterson gathers swift, skilled offensive players—very-good-but-not-quite-great quarterbacks and running backs from all over the Lone Star State—and tells them the score: I think it would be in everyone's best interest if you moved to defense.
For Jerry Hughes, the dream died on a June afternoon in 2006. An all-district running back and kick returner from Stephen F. Austin High in Sugar Land, Texas, he arrived in Fort Worth for summer workouts eager to follow in the footsteps of LaDainian Tomlinson at TCU. So Hughes was troubled to see the number on the practice jersey hanging in his stall: 98. But then he thought, The high numbers must have been assigned "to the guys who were going to redshirt," he says.
Next, though, he received a packet for members of the defensive line, after which he was told to meet with coordinator Dick Bumpas. "I started thinking," recalls Hughes, "maybe my running back days are numbered."
Not numbered. Over. Patterson invited Hughes to his office, where he showed the 6'1", 200-pound teenager video of then sophomore defensive end Tommy Blake sacking various signal-callers. Blake had been an all-state high school running back and had made the switch, grudgingly, to defense after his redshirt freshman season. He promptly blew up, getting seven sacks and 13½ tackles for loss, then finding himself on a handful of preseason All-America teams.
Trusting in Patterson, Hughes agreed to take one for the team, although he remembers thinking as he left the office, I'm 200 pounds. How is this going to work?
Quite nicely, it turned out. After bulking up and boning up on the nuances of the position, Hughes morphed into the scourge of the Mountain West Conference last season, racking up 15 sacks and forcing six fumbles, leading the nation in both categories. Now a ripped 6'3", 257 pounds, he has already picked up six sacks and 7½ tackles for loss for the 4--0 Frogs, whose 39--14 victory over SMU in the rain last Saturday night left them in possession of the Iron Skillet, symbolizing supremacy in the Metroplex. It also nudged TCU to No. 10 in the AP poll (ninth in the SI rankings), leaving the Frogs well-positioned to go to one of the few places their coach has yet to take them.
Patterson's Frogs have gone bowling in seven of his eight years at the helm, but they've never been to a BCS game. This season could be different. The egg laid by 12th-ranked Houston at UTEP on Saturday, a 58--41 loss to the Miners, leaves TCU and Boise State as the last two BCS-busting hopefuls.
True, the sixth-ranked Broncos have the inside track on the sole automatic berth that the sport's grandees have deigned to toss the peasantry—i.e., teams from non-BCS conferences. But with a much more rugged schedule than Boise's, the Frogs could, well, leapfrog the Broncos. Failing that, they could still secure an at-large bid. Of course all this is predicated on TCU's winning out. With road games remaining against always pesky Air Force and No. 18 BYU, plus a mid-November home date with Utah, it's a tall order, but it's one that TCU, playing to its potential, can handle. These guys have been so good for so long that they can't be called overachievers anymore.