FORT WORTH, Texas — A year ago at this time, Sonny Dykes sat in a sparsely decorated office and watched film during spring practice. He didn’t have a lot of time to worry about organizing his shelves when he was making a mad dash recruiting, hiring a staff and managing the transfer portal in his first few months on the job. And if he’s being honest, he wasn’t sure how the remodeling project was going with his team on the practice field out back either.
This April, his office is packed with the kind of hardware a historic season brings. There’s a purple Swarovski crystal football with a blinged-out TCU logo over his right shoulder (a gift from Penny Knight, wife of Nike founder Phil Knight). There are busts of Eddie Robinson, the legendary Grambling coach, and Bear Bryant, the Alabama icon, atop their respective coach of the year trophies — two of the nine national coaching awards Dykes won for 2022 alone. There’s even a plaque from the National Football Foundation, which named him a “Distinguished Texan” last month, which is about the highest praise you can give a guy from Lubbock.
“Ain’t that the truth?” Dykes joked. “I made the award up myself and paid them $100 to give it to me.”
All those awards and mementos commemorate last season, when TCU started 12-0, becoming the first current Power 5 school since Ohio State in 1944 to have a perfect regular-season record under a new coach after finishing below .500 in the previous season, with the Frogs having gone 5-7 the year before.
The storybook ride ended in disappointment with a 65-7 thrashing by Georgia in the College Football Playoff National Championship, but it doesn’t diminish the mountain the Horned Frogs climbed to get there, including eight second-half comeback wins and a CFP semifinal win over Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl.
With that comes a new level of expectations and a question for Dykes: Now that you endured the razor’s edge for a full season, coached a Heisman finalist (Max Duggan), a Thorpe Award winner (Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson) and a probable 2023 first-round pick (Quentin Johnston), what do you do for an encore?
“You know, nobody wants the honeymoon to be the best part of the marriage,” Dykes said recently after a Saturday practice. “We’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen here.”
IT’S HARD TO quantify the exact formula that made that TCU team so special, a mix of gumption and chemistry. There was a hunger from missing three straight bowl games. Duggan proved to be a gamer who was hard to break, even when he could hardly pick himself up off the turf. Running back Kendre Miller (who is also preparing for the NFL draft) rushed for 1,399 tough yards. And, Dykes said, the Frogs will miss the leadership established by guard Steve Avila, the consensus All-American, along with SMU transfer Alan Ali, who helped Dykes install the offense.
“[Avila and Ali] are just as important as the others — or maybe even more important — because those guys brought toughness and accountability,” Dykes said. “Steve was a uniquely gifted leader. And when you have a uniquely gifted leader on the offensive line, those teams are always really good.”
There are going to be new faces all across the offense this year — TCU ranked 118th in returning production in Bill Connelly’s February outlook — but Dykes hasn’t had to do as much of an overhaul on defense, where seven starters return for the second year in coordinator Joe Gillespie’s 3-3-5 defense.
Compounding the offensive losses, just days after an emotionally drained team returned from the national title game, offensive coordinator Garrett Riley, the Broyles Award winner as the top assistant coach in the country, departed for Clemson. If Dykes was still in that honeymoon phase, it was over.
Dykes raised eyebrows in Fort Worth when he replaced Riley with Kendal Briles, son of Art Briles, the former Baylor coach. TCU and Baylor turned the heat up on their rivalry, dubbed the “Revivalry” in the early 2010s after TCU joined the Big 12 and reunited with its old rival in Waco. Things got more tense after a 2013 game when Frogs coach Gary Patterson ripped Art Briles in a postgame news conference over a targeting penalty by a Bears defender.
“I didn’t build this program backing down to anybody, and I’m not going to do it to him,” Patterson said afterward.
The next year, Baylor stunned TCU with a 61-58 comeback win, and Patterson said he was threatened on the field by a Baylor player, which Baylor denied. The hate between the two was cemented.
Two years later, in 2016, Art Briles was fired by Baylor amid an investigation of sexual assaults by football players. Kendal, who was his father’s offensive coordinator, was not implicated in any wrongdoing in the investigation and remained at Baylor for one more year after Art’s departure, then served as offensive coordinator for a year each under Lane Kiffin at Florida Atlantic, Willie Taggart at Florida State and Major Applewhite at Houston before joining Sam Pittman’s staff at Arkansas in 2020.
The two have known each other since 1999 when Dykes recruited Kendal Briles out of Stephenville, about 60 miles away from TCU, when Briles, a star quarterback, was a junior in high school and Dykes was an assistant at Texas Tech (Briles ultimately signed with Texas). And Briles has worked with several members of TCU’s staff at other stops, which Dykes said allowed Briles to understand how he expects his program to operate. Still, for Briles to land at TCU was shocking to many Horned Frogs fans, which Dykes understands.
“We’ve known each other for a long time,” Dykes said. “I don’t think I would have made the hire had that not been the case. I wouldn’t have been comfortable doing that if I didn’t know him well.”
Like Riley and Rhett Lashlee, who was Dykes’ OC at SMU before replacing him there, Dykes said he hired Briles because of his commitment to the run game, a complement to Dykes’ Air Raid background (Arkansas ran for 3,075 yards last year, the Razorbacks’ most since 2003). Briles said the offense will look a little different because they’ll play with a little more tempo and a lot more run/pass options.
“We want to run the football,” Briles said. “They weren’t as much RPO [last season], and we’re pretty heavy RPO. We’re going to tailor to our personnel and what fits. Production, at the end of the day, is what we want.”
TCU was able to reload after all the losses by landing several high-profile transfers. Whereas last year’s key finds came from Navy (linebacker Johnny Hodges) and Louisiana-Monroe (corner Josh Newton), this year Dykes added three transfers from Alabama: RB Trey Sanders, WR JoJo Earle and tackle Tommy Brockermeyer; two from LSU: WR Jack Bech and CB Avery Helm; and receivers John Paul Richardson of Oklahoma State and Jaylon Robinson from Ole Miss. He also landed a top-20 recruiting class that ranked third in the Big 12 behind Texas and Oklahoma, the highest-rated TCU recruiting class in the modern era.
“I think we’ve got tremendous speed and playmaking ability and we’re a year further along,” Dykes said. “I really like what we’re doing offensively. I think it fits the skill set of our quarterbacks. I think they’re excited about the direction of the offense. So I don’t know how much different it’s going to look to the typical fan in the stands, but it’s going to be a little bit different.”
It’ll start, more than likely, with Chandler Morris, the quarterback who beat Duggan last year before going down with a sprained knee in the season opener at Colorado. In his only previous start, filling in for an injured Duggan in 2021, Morris threw for 461 yards and two TDs and ran for 70 more and another TD in an upset of No. 14 Baylor, the eventual Big 12 champs that season. This spring, Morris has looked efficient in practice, distributing the ball and using his feet, in Briles’ offense.
“I’m really enjoying it,” Morris said. “Coach Dykes and I had a conversation the other day about how he thinks this is the best offense for me and thinks I’m built for this offense. We’re going to get the ball on the perimeter, put a lot of stress on the defense, try and get them in a bad situation and play with tempo, keep them on their heels and, and go after them.”
Dykes has been impressed with his performances, and also by the development of Josh Hoover, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound redshirt freshman from nearby Rockwall in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, who looks like a different player in 2023 after losing 15% of his body fat.
“We’ve got a couple of quarterbacks that can throw the ball around,” Briles said. “So I think we’ll be able to do some quick-game stuff. We’ve got some players that I think if we distribute the ball to, they can be really good in space.”
That’s especially true at inside receiver, where the Frogs believe they are stacked with players who can make people miss. On the outside, they still have to work in Bech, the 6-2, 215-pound LSU transfer who is recovering from an injury, and 6-4, 205-pound freshman Cordale Russell, one of the gems of that recruiting class who arrives later this summer.
“There are a lot of guys that people know that are here, but they haven’t really had a chance to produce yet,” Briles said. “So I’m kind of interested to see who’s going to kind of rise to the top and be one of those guys that we can rely on. I think we’ve got a lot of different options.”
IN THE BEGINNING stages of Year 2 of the Dykes era, coming off an appearance in the national championship game, some things feel different, like when he walked into high schools and students took photos of him with their phones.
“I wasn’t jacked about that,” he said. “Hopefully that goes back to normal soon.”
But he also knows that comes with the exposure from all those awards and all the camera time he got last year.
“You want credibility,” Dykes said. “It’s hard. … I didn’t play college football. I coached at historically bad places, coached in the ‘gimmick offense’ [as the Air Raid was often dismissed]. You know, you just hear all this stuff for all the years and all you want is a shot at the big time. I think it just gives you a little bit of credibility. When you walk into a room, it’s a little different now than it was before.”
Dykes said the thing he was proudest of last season was the Frogs’ will to win, no matter if it was pretty or ugly.
Now, after arriving there, he has to help figure out how to do it all over again. This time, the Frogs likely won’t be picked seventh in the Big 12 preseason poll and instead will try to prove the way last season ended was the anomaly, focusing on the fact that Dykes’ team was able to survive and advance all year last season, no matter the obstacle or which side of the ball had a rough day.
“We were able to win the Michigan game 51-45, and we were able to win the game at Texas the way we did, a 17-10 game,” Dykes said. “It’s too bad that we played our one bad game we played all year in the national championship. We turned the ball over three times in the first half. We didn’t do that, ever. We played desperate and did all the stuff that bad teams do. I hated that was in the national championship game, but again, you’ve got to give our guys credit because we played well for 14 weeks when we had to. There wasn’t a ton of margin for error.”
This time around, he has proof to show his players they can believe. And he’s embracing that same belief himself while challenging his coaches and players to figure out how to live up to last year’s example.
“I think talent-wise, this year’s team will be on par with last year’s team or maybe better, top to bottom, just looking at the roster,” Dykes said. “But can you do those little things that allow you to win those games? And do you have that same type of leadership? I think we’re trending in the right direction.”
Morris was part of a team that made TCU history, but he said history is exactly what it is now.
“Nobody’s really talking about last year,” Morris said. “I think we’re all just very hungry right now to go out there and show what this team is all about. We know what the blueprint looks like from last year. Obviously, we fell short in the conference championship game (a 31-28 overtime loss to Kansas State) and the national championship game. We know our goal, we know what it takes to get there. We’re ready to write our own story.”