FORT WORTH, Texas — TCU quarterback Max Duggan found himself in an unfamiliar position when the Horned Frogs opened the 2022 season against Colorado: on the bench. After 29 starts and throws for nearly 6,000 career yards, Duggan lost the job to Chandler Morris in the offseason and was pushed to the second rope.
Duggan could have entered the busiest quarterback transfer market of all time and immediately landed a starting job at Power Five. Even during the season, it becomes popular to walk away from the team, use a red shirt season and enter the transfer portal. If Duggan had chosen this path, he could have had two years left of eligibility at a new school.
TCU coach Sonny Dykes has faced competitive quarterback battles from his time at SMU to close battles on Mike Leach’s Texas Tech staff. When an incumbent loses their starting job, the writing is on the wall. Usually he has to have conversations with the replacement to improve his body language or assess whether he will have a scholarship to fill. It can become a distraction.
“Well, none of that happened,” Dykes said.
When Morris sprained his knee against the Buffaloes, Duggan was ready. And since being returned to the starting lineup, he’s responded with the best football of his career – hands down – to lead TCU to an unexpected 5-0 start for the first time since 2017. The Frogs sit at the top of the Big 12 and appear to have their best shot at a conference title since co-championship with Baylor in 2014.
“He never blinks,” a visibly emotional Dykes told reporters after TCU beat rival SMU on Sept. 24 for the first time in Duggan’s career. “He never had a bad practice. He never thought of himself once. How many people can you tell that in your life? I mean really, how many people do you know?
“You can say that about Max Duggan, that’s for sure.”
Confident and elevated play
Over five games, Duggan was unequivocally one of the best quarterbacks in the nation and a borderline contender for the Heisman Trophy. The senior has thrown for at least 300 yards and three touchdowns in three of his last four games. In the past two, he’s rediscovered his rushing game with 171 yards and three touchdowns on 12+ yards per carry.
Duggan ranks No. 2 nationally in yards per pass attempt and passer rating behind only Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud. His 73.2% completion percentage trails only Michigan’s JJ McCarthy, UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa at the Power Five.
Duggan’s 14-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio leads the Power Five and trails only Sun Belt stars Todd Centeio and Grayson McCall. Take out Duggan’s partial game against Colorado and he would rank No. 3 nationally in total offense per game. Simply put, Duggan’s production in this offense is on par with any college football quarterback at any level.
“I left the training ground on [Oct. 4] and I saw two or three passes that I had never seen before,” Dykes said. “The ball came out in time, it’s anticipating, it’s in the right spot and it’s a hell of a throw. Then I saw a few more on Wednesday. Then I saw more in Saturday’s game. You start seeing stuff and realize it’s pretty high level stuff. I think a lot of it is just his belief in what he does and the people who do it with him.”
TCU previously had a series of coaches with Air Raid ties who ran the offense. Both Dykes and TCU offensive coordinator Garret Riley are branches of that tree after coaching and playing at Texas Tech under Leach.
“I don’t think it’s such a different pattern or anything like that,” Riley said. “I just think it’s confidence and repetition.”
Trust is a word you hear often at Fort Worth facilities. The TCU staff don’t try to beat their opponents with sheer schematic brilliance or hundreds of different formations; it’s about getting players to do things they understand and execute concepts at a high level.
“The consistency that we have in terms of concept and schematically that we follow from week to week [makes the system work]”, Duggan said. “It’s similar things that we’re postponing. I think there’s a lot of confidence that Coach Riley and Coach Dykes put in you as a forward – and as a quarterback who can play free and play with confidence. It was fun to play in the system.”
This increased confidence is measurable. Last season, Duggan averaged 3.2 seconds to throw on each throwback. This year, it went down to 2.56 seconds. Duggan also averaged 3.4 scrambles per game in 2021, which fell to just 1.5 in his four starts this year. Of 67 snaps in the blitz last season, Duggan completed 50% of passes and fell to 7.9 yards per attempt with four touchdowns and two interceptions. This year, Duggan is completing 70% of passes for 10.7 yards per attempt and six touchdowns on 39 blitzes.
Clearly, Duggan no longer panics. He calmly goes through the readings, makes the right call and trusts his teammates to make plays. The results set the bar for everyone in Fort Worth.
More impressively, Duggan hit those numbers with effectively the same roster as last season. The team’s top five receivers were there in 2021, along with four of the top five runners. The only difference was losing running back Zach Evans and gaining former SMU starting lineman Alan Ali.
Watching Duggan hit his stride as a team leader energized his teammates. “I feel like everyone is feeding off his energy,” receiver Taye Barber said. “He’s the starting quarterback, so everything goes through him from touching the ball every play.”
Duggan committed to TCU at a time when he was enjoying peak performance under longtime coach Gary Patterson. Fresh off a trip to the 2017 Big 12 Championship Game, the Frogs had bowled in 12 of the previous 13 seasons with nine 10-win seasons. The two previous quarterbacks to graduate were Trevone Boykin and Kenny Hill, both of whom became stars while in Fort Worth.
When Duggan finally arrived in 2019, however, Patterson’s program was slowly beginning to atrophy. After a flurry of transfers, Duggan was thrust into the starting lineup as a true freshman. There were flashes of greatness, like a 323-yard performance in a 33-31 win over Texas Tech. There were also plenty of dips, like throwing 21 passes for 65 yards and a touchdown the following week against Oklahoma.
The season ended without a trip to the bowl for the first time in six years and was just a harbinger of things to come before Patterson was fired in 2021. Duggan was inconsistent, turnover-prone and inaccurate . He never threw for more than 2,048 yards in a season and had 20 interceptions in 29 starts. He was injured late in a 5-7 campaign in 2021 that Sports Reference called the worst for TCU since leaving Conference USA in 2004. Morris, however, showed some flashes and upset eventual Big 12 champions Baylor. After a close battle in spring and fall camp, Morris was deemed more fit for the offense.
“I was more disappointed in myself just because everybody wants to play and be the guy,” Duggan said. “But I got over it. I didn’t feel sorry for myself. I didn’t pout. I knew it wouldn’t help the team. I wasn’t too worried about it. ”
The opportunity presented itself for Duggan when Morris left the Colorado game. Emotions were running high as neither Morris nor the staff knew the severity of the injury, but Duggan had no time to wait. The staff made it easy for Duggan, allowing him just three attempted passes in two drives in a 38-13 win before Sam Jackson took the field.
“I think his maturity is definitely a big reason,” Riley said. “The confidence he has in himself to say, ‘I’m going to do everything I can to be a great teammate and be ready when my number is called’… that was great for the rest of our guys. to see that if this guy can do it, everyone else has to take the same approach.”
Enter the Heisman chat
A week after the Colorado game, TCU opted to give Duggan new concepts. Then they gave him a few more the following week. Then a few more next week. Soon Duggan’s production was turning heads. Dykes previously said he felt like he needed 18 months in a new job before the program was really his. Just 10 months after taking office, he has TCU ranked 13th, his highest ranking in five years.
The Frogs host No. 8 Oklahoma State on Saturday in the highest-ranked battle at Amon G. Carter Stadium since 2014. With a sizable national TV audience, this could be the perfect time for Duggan to move from the outskirts. of the Heisman Trophy discussion in the center. But Duggan doesn’t care. After years of struggles, he just wants to win.
“He’s a warrior,” Riley said. “He’s going to compete regardless of the situation. I think that breeds a lot of confidence for the rest of the players. If this guy can be in the situation he was coming into the season, play like he’s playing right now and be as tough that he is, I think that’s a good thing for the rest of our guys to see.
“If your quarterback does it, everybody better do it.”