FORT WORTH, Texas — Sonny Dykes needed only about five minutes with Joe Gillespie to know that he wanted the defensive coordinator who wields an atypical 3-3-5 base scheme on his staff at TCU.
While utilizing the unorthodox lineup with three linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs, the Horned Frogs have played fast and free all the way to the national championship game in Dykes’ first season as their head coach.
“There’s still six people in the box,” said linebacker Johnny Hodges, who leads TCU with 81 tackles even after missing a game. “I guess it’s a little different. … From the outside eye, it might seem a little tough and hard to understand, but as a player it’s pretty easy to kind of gel into get and get used it.”
Fellow linebacker Dee Winters, a former high school receiver, had three tackles for loss and one of the Horned Frogs’ two interception returns for touchdowns in the College Football Playoff semifinal win over Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl. Dylan Horton, the 275-pound tackle who is the team’s sacks leader with 10 1/2 after four against the Wolverines, was a safety in high school when he was about 70 pounds lighter.
TCU (13-1) gets a chance Monday night to win its first national championship since its 1938 team run by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Davey O’Brien. The Frogs take on defending champ Georgia (14-0) at SoFi Stadium in suburban Los Angeles.
Was it Gillespie’s scheme or the coach himself that impressed the offensive-minded Dykes? Actually, it was a little of both after his SMU teams struggled the past three years against Tulsa, which had Gillespie as its defensive coordinator and didn’t run the more typical 4-3-4 scheme.
“Scheme catches your eye,” Dykes said. “When you’re in this business, you see a lot of film and you watch teams and you go, boy, that team looks really well-coached. … It was a difficult scheme to score points against, move the ball against consistently.”
Dykes and the Mustangs were 1-2 against Gillespie, held below their impressive season averages for total offense each time and reaching their season scoring average only once.
Iowa State is the only other team with a similar defensive scheme in the Big 12, a league filled with high-powered offenses. The Cyclones were easily the conference’s best defense, allowing 286 yards and 20 points a game this season.
The Frogs have long utilized five defensive backs with success in a 4-2-5 system with Gary Patterson, the former DC who won a school-record 181 games in 21 seasons as head coach. His departure from the school with four games left in the 2021 season came amid struggles on defense.
TCU has allowed 395 total yards and 26.4 points per game this season, significant improvements after giving up nearly 462 yards and 35 points a game while going 5-7 in 2021.
“It’s been quite the journey, from the time that we got here and the installation of the new defense,” Gillespie said. “You knew you had some good football players … I think the biggest deal at this point is that they’ve just done a tremendous job of really locking in and embracing the newness of everything.”
Horton said defensive linemen have different responsibilities in this scheme with only three of them in the game.
“We kind of have to hold gaps a little longer and double teams a little bit longer,” he said.
That allows the linebackers to run free a bit more; in the Fiesta Bowl, Winters had seven solo tackles and the pick-6.
“I think it’s just simplifying the defense, allowing us to play fast, just flying around,” Winters said. “Coach Gillespie preaches that we’re going to make mistakes, it’s inevitable. But he wants us to go out there and have fun. And he constantly reminds us at the end of the day it’s football and just play fast.”
The 51-year-old Gillespie spent the past seven seasons at Tulsa, the first four as linebackers coach before becoming defensive coordinator. That was his first college job, after 20 seasons at Stephenville High School in his Texas hometown, where he was an assistant for 13 years before becoming the head coach.
Dykes describes him as a great communicator with no ego and a coach with a bright future.
“He’s like a father figure. You just hope you can get coached by someone like him,” said Hodges, a junior transfer from Navy. “What you see on the field is how he acts, he always tries to stay calm and collected.”
Even with players flying to the ball from all over the field.