From now until the season starts I will be previewing the prospects from Big-12, ACC and Big East teams for the upcoming season (and I apologize that I haven’t gotten one done in a while!). My colleague at NFL Draft Monsters Justin Higdon (follow him on Twitter @afc2nfc) will be covering the SEC, Pac-12 and Big-10 and you will be able to read those posts on NFL Draft Monsters. Check them all out to get ready for the 2013 NFL Draft by identifying the prospects you need to learn about!

Today I am previewing TCU. TCU hasn’t had the easiest of offseasons due to their drug related issues, especially pertaining to the drug bust that occurred last February. That hurt their depth and put them under the microscope when they already had plenty of eyes on them after agreeing to go to the Big-East, then changing course again when a spot in the Big-12 opened up. The step up in competition alone is intriguing enough to keep an eye on, but with the added unwanted attention from a drug scandal TCU has plenty of people watching them this year. Luckily they return plenty of talent on offense, particularly at quarterback with Casey Pachall, running back with Waymon James and Matthew Tucker, and wide receiver with Josh Boyce, Skye Dawson and Brandon Carter. Their offensive line has been gutted though, and they don’t have much returning experience outside of senior right guard Blaize Foltz. The offense should fit in pretty well with the Big-12 though, as they can run the ball effectively and air it out quite well due to their talent at the skill positions.

Contrary to what has been Patterson’s mantra at TCU, the offense is expected to be the stronger of the two units, not the defense as has been customary. The defense was gutted as well thanks to graduation and in part the drug bust, and now they have plenty of question marks throughout the defense. The lone standout remaining is defensive end Stansly Maponga, who had 9 sacks last year and is TCU’s best bet to put any pressure on Big-12 offenses that, traditionally, love to pass the ball. TCU’s defense won’t be awful, especially since Patterson is a very good coach and a bright defensive mind, but there will likely be some significant growing pains in the first 4-6 weeks of the season. That means it is all the more imperative that Pachall and the offense get off to a strong start right off the bat, so the defense can get their feet under them. There are some speculating that TCU could have a 10+ win season this year, but I think 8 or maybe 9 is more realistic. I think they will drop a couple Big-12 games thanks to their defense, and while their offense has plenty of talent at the skill positions I think Pachall will be under considerably more pressure this year than he was as a sophomore thanks to the turnover on the offensive line. With that said, here are TCU’s prospects to keep an eye on:

Pachall has plenty of arm talent, but his inconsistent mechanics (such as his release, which dips to his waist) and varying release angles can hurt his accuracy.

Casey Pachall, QB*- Pachall is entering his junior season and his second full season as a starter with pretty lofty expectations considering what he was able to accomplish as a first year starter, replacing the revered Andy Dalton no less. He threw for a TCU record 2,921 yards (and completed 67% of his passes while doing so) as well as 25 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions. Not bad for your first 13 games as a starter. But he will have an even bigger test this year as he returns to a team with plenty of skill position talent on offense, but a lot of question marks along his offensive line and throughout his defense. That means there will be more pressure on Pachall, both to be a leader and to be even more productive, but also literally when he drops back to pass. Pachall has the size, the arm strength and the athleticism that you want in a quarterback standing at 6’5”, 216 pounds and having the mobility to extend plays when flushed from the pocket, threaten defenses if they don’t respect him on zone-read plays, and pick up yardage if the defense gets too far upfield and doesn’t keep an eye on him in man coverage. His accuracy is good, not great, but when I’ve watched him there haven’t been many throws that have been way off target despite his inconsistent mechanics.

Pachall has plenty of raw talent, the question is will he be able to master the mental part of the game as well as the mechanical aspect. His throwing motion could use tweaking, and he doesn’t consistently throw with the same mechanics. There are times when he stands tall in the pocket and delivers a throw and takes a hit as a result, and there are other times when he fades away from the pressure, rushes his throwing motion and throws an inaccurate pass in the face of the pass rush. He definitely has a live arm and can make all the throws from an arm strength standpoint, but I haven’t been impressed with his ability to identify pressure pre-snap, or to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage. This likely has a lot to do with him being a sophomore in his first season as a starter, but it’s still something I took notice of and want to see him improve now that he has a year of starting experience under his belt. Pachall has shown that he can make big throws when his team needs them, whether it’s on 3rd down or late in a game (see 2011 game against Boise State) but his gunslinger mentality also opens him up to errant throws and mistakes. He clearly trusts his arm and also his receivers (most notably Josh Boyce) and it will be interesting to see if that mentality and trust gets him in any more trouble against improved Big-12 competition this season.

Overall, Pachall impressed me with his tools, but playing quarterback is about a lot more than just having the size and arm talent to make the throws. As Trent Dilfer would say during the Elite 11 camp: “Right now, you’re a butcher, and you’re good enough to get away with just being a butcher. But I want you to be a surgeon, and that part comes from the mental aspect of the game.” That’s not a direct quote, but it’s the gist of what he told a college-bound QB from last year’s Elite 11 and it applies quite well to Pachall. Pachall is talented enough to not make great pre-snap reads, not work to improve his mechanics, not identify blitzes or his hot reads that well, and make throws without much anticipation and get away with it. But if he wants to take the next step and eventually be a NFL quarterback he needs to become a master of his offense, make checks at the line of scrimmage and make better pre-snap reads. He’s flashed the ability to come off of his primary receiver and scan the field which was encouraging, but I’d like to see more of that. Pachall and TCU will be under a microscope not only because they are moving into the Big-12, but because of all the drug issues TCU has been having recently (which resulted in Pachall admitting that he had used in marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy, though Patterson noted that Pachall “has passed 24 other drug tests that had been administered, including six since the failed test in February). Pachall isn’t the clean-cut choir boy that Andy Dalton was, but that’s not something you love to hear about the face of your football program. That news created quite a buzz on Twitter, but it shouldn’t result in a suspension of any kind for Pachall unless he continues to use them and fails a drug test, which to this point he hasn’t.

Waymon James, RB*- I have to say I’m a fan of Waymon James, but not just because of his on-field talent, but because his first name really cracks me up. That said, thanks to Ed Wesley’s departure for the Supplemental Draft earlier this summer, James and Matthew Tucker figure to get a lot more carries this season. Last year the carry load was distributed remarkably evenly (James with 121 attempts, Wesley with 120 attempts, and Tucker with 123 attempts). With Wesley and the 120 carries he accounted for last year now gone, James and Tucker figure to account for the majority of those touches. James is another shorter back, listed at only 5’8” but tipping the scales at an impressive 203 pounds. He clearly has a lot of lower leg strength, he catches the ball well out of the backfield and he has plenty of burst and straight line speed as well. He runs through arm tackles easily thanks to his lower body strength and ability to churn his legs and has the shiftiness to make guys miss and break off longer runs. I really like James and I think he should be featured heavily in TCU’s offense this year. He’s a smaller back, yes, but he can run between the tackles, break tackles, get tough yards in addition to providing burst, speed, and pass catching out of the backfield.

Matthew Tucker, RB- Tucker is the relative “thunder” to James’ lightning as he stands at 6’1”, 227 pounds and runs with some authority. He doesn’t go down to arm tackles and while I doubt he has much more than 4.5 speed he can rumble for big gains once he gets past the 2nd level. He is a senior this year and perhaps due to his size as well as his experience TCU likes to use him to pass block on 3rd down situations and seems to do a solid job. I’m not sure how great Tucker’s NFL prospects are at this point, but he is no slouch out of that TCU backfield. With Wesley gone, I imagine TCU will feature James and Tucker quite frequently with a couple of younger backs mixed in as well.

I’m a big fan of Josh Boyce, and I think he is ready to have a 1,000+ yard, 12+ TD season in the Big-12.

Josh Boyce, WR*- I have to say I am a big fan of Josh Boyce and I think he is my favorite NFL Draft prospect on TCU’s entire roster. Last season as a sophomore the 5’11”, 203 pound receiver caught 61 passes for 998 yards and 9 touchdowns and was undeniably Pachall’s go-to guy when he needed a big play or a crucial conversion. Boyce has very reliable hands and they are strong enough to rip the ball away when a defender contests him for a reception. He may not be a huge receiver, but he is pretty filled out and does a good job tracking and timing his leaps on 50/50 balls. He has shown that he can high point the ball and catches the ball very well with his hands outside of his frame. I don’t think he has 4.4 flat speed, but I think he is in that 4.45-4.5 range which is more than adequate to transition into the NFL when he chooses to leave TCU (either this year after his junior year or after he graduates as a senior. It would be fun to watch him and Pachall stay for two more years). Boyce may not be the biggest or the fastest, but he is a playmaker with great hands who runs good routes and is a well-rounded receiver. Will he be a #1 WR in the NFL? Probably not, but I think he can be a good slot receiver and perhaps even a quality #2. I am really looking forward to watching him this year.

Skye Dawson, WR- Dawson may not be as good of a prospect as Boyce, but plenty of people have their eyes on him now that he is a senior. He’s only listed at 5’9, 183 pounds but he compensates for that lack of size with dynamic speed. Whether he actually has sub 4.4 speed or not, his speed and burst is clear on the field and he is certainly dangerous any time he gets the ball in his hands, particularly in space. But that is the problem with Dawson, actually getting the ball in his hands. He has very questionable hands in my opinion and I have seen a number of passes hit him right in the hands and fall to the turf, including a TERRIBLE drop vs. Louisiana Tech on a ball that, had he caught it, could have been a 90 yard touchdown. Dawson has speed to burn, but if he continues to body catch and struggle to catch passes outside of his frame it is going to limit him as a receiver and make him less attractive to NFL scouts. He has flashed some ability as a kick returner, and although he only has 7 career returns he has 182 career yards, a 26 yard average per return. Now that Greg McCoy has graduated, perhaps he will get more opportunities to show he can be a difference maker as a return man as well.

Blaize Foltz, OG- Foltz is arguably TCU’s top returning offensive lineman, and boy will they need him since they lost so much experience up front. Foltz is a big, strong offensive guard who is listed at 6’4”, 310 pounds and is well known for his absurd weight room strength. Foltz does a pretty good job of translating this to the field, as he has impressive phone-booth strength and can drive opponents off the ball when he gets his hands on them and keeps his pads low. His downfall is when he is asked to be mobile, such as pulling or getting out on screens. He looks slow and struggles to quickly change direction when a fast defender closes nearby him and may struggle to mirror faster defensive linemen that can keep him off balance. Oftentimes when he gets his hands on a defender the play is over for him, but it will be interesting to see how he does against bigger and faster defensive linemen in the Big-12. He’s a good drive blocker, but I have questions about him as a puller and as a pass blocker right now.

Maponga may not be well known thus far, but he had 9 sacks last season and may be ready for another break-out campaign as a member of the Big-12 conference this season.

Stansly Maponga, DE*- Maponga has been on my radar for a long time now, I noticed him as a freshman and he is coming into his junior season this year. He’s a little undersized at 6’2” but is listed at 265 pounds which is impressive. He’s got some burst off the ball and fairly long arms for his size, but I am very interested to see if he can replicate his production (55 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 9 sacks and an impressive 5 forced fumbles) at a higher level of competition in the Big-12. He has some speed and burst, but right now he is still a mid-round guy for me. I like him, but he isn’t an elite pass rusher yet in my eyes. If TCU is going to hang with the Big-12’s best, they are going to need Maponga to terrorize opposing backfields. The defensive end opposite him, senior Ross Forrest, isn’t a special pass rusher by any means and mostly accumulates stats as a result of his motor. The Big-12 traditionally has a lot of high-flying passing attacks, so if TCU is going to compete for a 9+ win season their defense is going to have to step up. That means Maponga will have to replicate his production from a year ago.

Kenny Cain, OLB/S- Cain isn’t an elite NFL Draft prospect, but he is TCU’s leading returning tackler as a senior with 72 tackles (he actually led the team in tackles last year, totaling 2 more than Tekerrein Cuba and Tank Carder) while also adding 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 4 pass break-ups and an interception. He’s undersized at 6’1, 210 pounds and is a bit of a linebacker/safety hybrid, but if he continues to be a productive tackler and if he can demonstrate competency on special teams he will have a shot as an undrafted free agent if nothing else.

Jason Verrett, CB*- Verrett is a 5’10”, 180 pound corner whose first season with TCU after transferring from a junior college school was pretty productive. He had 58 tackles (the most of any corner for TCU since 2001 according to Phil Steele), 1.5 TFL, 4 pass break-ups and an interception. I haven’t seen him play much, but coming into his junior season he will definitely be on my radar.

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