Sports Journalism Blog

By Justin Haberstroh | @JustinHaberstr1

Sports Capital Journalism Program

LOS ANGELES – Kendre Miller was a three-star football recruit in search of a power five football program.

In the winter of 2020, Miller, a 6-foot, 208-pound running back from Mount Enterprise, Texas, population 500, reportedly had offers from UTSA, Southern Mississippi and Wyoming. He decided to wait with the hope of receiving an offer from a larger program.

TCU hosted Miller on an official visit on January 31, and three days later he committed to the Horned Frogs.

Miller’s development has come to represent the dramatic rise of TCU, which had a losing record in three of the six previous seasons, to the College Football Playoff National Championship Monday night with a chance to win its first title since 1938.

In Miller’s junior year, he has emerged as one of the most accomplished of the TCU players that had been overlooked or underappreciated. The development of talent and the investment of more than $400 million raised from donors to improve facilities in the past decade have placed a once-forgotten program among the elite.

In an already-historic season, Miller has rushed for 1,399 yards — the most at TCU since LaDainian Tomlinson gained 2,158 in 2000 — with 17 touchdowns. Miller had at least one rushing touchdown in 13 of 14 games. The status of the sprained medial collateral ligament in Miller’s right knee will be a closely watched factor on Monday.

Much of this TCU team has been built with players that had circumstances similar to Miller’s in high school. According to the website 247Sports, the TCU roster has one player rated with five stars on the roster, 16 with four stars, 61 with three stars, two with two stars, and 55 that were unranked. The defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs include 15 that were rated with five stars, 53 with four stars, 22 with three stars, three with two stars, and 38 that were unranked.

On Sunday morning, the day before the championship game, TCU coach Sonny Dykes said his roster included four players with bowl-game experience prior to the semifinal victory in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Eve.

Miller knows that the development has produced experience that has become decisive in big games.

“We have been down in a bunch of games,” he said, “and it really shows how mature we are as a team … We’re down and we don’t panic. It’s just amazing to me what this team has done.”

One example of an impactful transfer is Dylan Horton. Horton, a 6-foot-4, 275-pound defensive end, was an outside linebacker at New Mexico. At TCU, he added 40 pounds and became a defensive end. In high school, Horton was a safety and was ranked 1,999 in the nation and 291 in Texas. This season he has had 44 total tackles, 10 sacks, and one forced fumble.

“Coming to TCU to play defensive end it was a little bit different because I was coming off the edge and I had to learn some different techniques,” Horton said. “But through the whole process, I think it’s helped me just get closer to the ball and understand the different responsibilities.”

Another lower-rated recruit, Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, became a star defensive back. Hodges-Tomlinson is the nephew of LaDainian Tomlinson. Hodges-Tomlinson was another three-star recruit coming out of high school that TCU identified. Now as a Horned Frog, Hodges-Tomlinson is a three-time first-team All-Big 12 selection and two-time All-American. Hodges-Tomlinson won the Jim Thorpe Award this year as the nation’s best defensive back.

This season Hodges-Tomlinson had 45 tackles, 17 passes defended, one forced fumble and three interceptions. Hodges-Tomlinson realizes that the ratings many of his teammates received during the recruiting process has helped to energize them.

“That has been something that has fueled us,” Hodges-Tomlinson said. “Understanding that we haven’t ever been talked about a lot and haven’t ever been given that much respect. I feel like it’s something that we branded. We created a chip on our shoulder from the beginning of our careers here, and at TCU we have already had that mentality. We have never been that somebody to someone, we have never been a five-star. For us to be in this situation, we’re not going to change our mentality, we’re going to keep the same chip on our shoulder.”

Fueled by that outlook, those Horned Frogs joined a program that has made an enormous financial investment in the past decade. Since TCU joined the Big 12, more than $400 million has been invested in the renovation and construction of football facilities. The most recent project was a $113 million upgrade of the Legends Club and Suites in Amon G. Carter Stadium on the campus in Fort Worth. TCU has also recently announced a $40 million plan to build an athletic training center and a Football Performance Center, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The return on that investment has happened more quickly than anyone expected. The 2022 recruiting class became the first in school history to be ranked among the top 20. The school’s 2022 transfer class was ranked 11th in the nation by 247Sports.

“Our guys were hungry and they were mature,” Dykes said. “They had a chip on their shoulder. And they bought in quickly. Now, the challenging thing, as we move forward, past Monday, is where do we go from here? And there’s a standard now, and a set of expectations that accompany this kind of success. And to me that’s the exciting part. It really is.

“I mean, you really get to find out how good you are,” Dykes went on. “It’s one thing to get to the top. It’s another thing to be able to stay there.”