NCAA Football: Texas Christian Spring Game

FORT WORTH, Texas — There were points where running back Trey Sanders, wide receiver JoJo Earle and offensive lineman Tommy Brockermeyer each seemed poised to be among the next generation of stars for Alabama. The three all signed with the Crimson Tide as top 100 recruits in their respective recruiting cycles, with Brockermeyer and Sanders both attaining five-star ratings from 247Sports. As fate had it, injuries kept all three from hitting their strides at Alabama. 

Now facing fresh starts in 2023 after all three transferred to TCU this offseason -- homecomings for Fort Worth area natives Earle and Brockermeyer -- they're hungry to handle business differently with some perspective from their last stop in mind. 

"It's kind of crazy how it all went over and [the three] ended up at the same spot," Earle told CBS Sports.

What the trio fell short of accomplishing at Alabama could spur them to be impact players for a Horned Frogs program that replaces 11 starters from 2022, when TCU improbably reached the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in coach Sonny Dykes' first season. Through spring football and summer workouts, Dykes still sees the blue-chip potential in three newcomers who received a taste of Nick Saban's standard. 

"In some ways, Trey has turned into a real leader for us," Dykes told CBS Sports at Big 12 Media Days. "The guys really respect him and the way he goes about his business. JoJo being a local guy, he's one that has a lot of confidence and swagger. And Tommy is a younger guy that has gotten a new leash on life in some ways. He's excited to have a chance to get out there to get some time to compete. 

"Really, I'm excited about all three of them because they've played at an [Alabama] program that knows how to compete and has very high expectations." 

For the Tide transfers, arguably nothing weighs heavier on their minds than putting in the extra work to stay up to speed.

In Brockermeyer's two years at Alabama, where he arrived in 2021 alongside his twin brother, James, he only saw the field twice amid an ongoing struggle to prevent ailments. Earle, also part of Alabama's top-ranked '21 signing class, saw five starts across those same two seasons and was even a Freshman All-SEC selection as a return specialist, but missed time in both years with lower body injuries. For Sanders, the nation's top running back in the Class of 2019, his Alabama career was marred by a November 2020 car crash in which he suffered injuries that initially clouded his football future. Sanders had already missed all of 2019 due to a foot injury in fall camp.  

Those experiences have them keeping their heads down as TCU's depth chart shakes out, carrying a renewed focus on discipline needed to last at a championship level. As Alabama made it clear, nothing excuses a leader mentality - not even a situation like the one Sanders endured with the car crash -- in order to go toe-to-toe with some of the nation's top players. For Sanders, adversity only fueled him to develop a more watchful eye on both himself and talent surrounding him.

"You have to be a leader when nobody else is around," Sanders said. "That's doing all the little stuff. I think Alabama really helped me in that part. When I saw guys like [Heisman winners] DeVonta Smith and Bryce Young do these things and the results they were getting, it helped me figure out what I needed to do [to improve]." 

That "little stuff" goes far beyond the field, from maintaining a healthy diet to simply getting enough sleep. Earle admits his attention to detail in those areas wasn't up to par before injuries became a thorn in his side, though not without waking him up to the importance of conditioning. 

"Staying consistent and taking care of your body is what [Alabama] really opened my eyes to," Earle said. "I wasn't taking care of my body as I should have been. I learned about mindset. Discipline is, I think, the biggest thing a player can and should have in his repertoire." 

TCU will certainly need discipline in order to sustain last year's success. Offseason departures on offense alone include the Frogs' leading three receivers, leading two rushers, a trio of starting linemen, and Heisman finalist quarterback Max Duggan. Between 23 true freshmen, 13 transfers -- 10 from Power Five programs, including six SEC transfers -- and a new offensive coordinator in Kendal Briles, there will be no less than 37 individuals on hand who were watching last year's ride from afar. 

Though one of those new faces, Sanders hasn't been afraid to speak up as if he was in Fort Worth a season ago. He was, after all, on the roster for two Alabama teams that reached the national title game before the Frogs reached that same stage in January. 

"It's my responsibility to show [TCU teammates] the way -- the right way and standard," Sanders said. "They can't just come in and think [TCU] went to the national championship because of a good player. They went to the national championship because they had discipline. Everyone took care of each other. Everyone held each other accountable and things like that. That is the process we are going through right now – teaching them to become disciplined. Once we get through that part, the sky is the limit for everybody."  

The role injury prevention played in TCU's single season turnaround from 5-7 to national runner-up shouldn't be overlooked. Under coach Kaz Kazadi, TCU's assistant athletics director for football human performance, the Frogs' strength and conditioning program was overhauled into one that had players of all shapes and sizes built to last mentally and physically.

By players' accounts, TCU's locker room has caught on to that mindset without much hesitation this offseason. With oversight from coaches that include Kazadi and his strength staff, it's fostering a culture that has players like Brockermeyer -- even after spending much of recent years sidelined -- feeling rejuvenated on what the future holds. 

"Everyone wants to get better every day," Brockermeyer told CBS Sports. "Everyone is working really hard to make this program better. Spending every day with the staff, they want me to get better, faster and stronger. They really care about you here. They really want you to develop into the best player you can be." 

And Kazadi, with his master's degree in counseling psychology from Missouri, is ready to push players again to go the extra mile. 

"Coach Kaz knows what it takes to be a champion," Sanders said. "He got that (installed) last year, and he's even ready to amp it up even more." 

A tall hill remains for TCU to climb if it wants to be respected nationally as a title threat, as January's 65-7 title game loss to Georgia showed. But with last year's blueprint unchanged and the buy-in apparent, the Tide transfers sense TCU might not go away quietly, even after being picked to finish fifth in the Big 12 in 2023. They're ready to do their part, knowing a team effort is required. 

"We have a lot of people from different organizations that have had different mindsets," Earle said. "They are all coming together on this team and I think it is building something great for this season."

At the same time, the confidence they bring from a program with perpetually sky-high expectations is hard to miss.

"We can do the exact same thing [TCU] did last year, except finish it this time," Brockermeyer said. "We have everything we need here." 

If that happens, it could be a step toward something much bigger for the Frogs that nobody forgets.   

"It's a championship culture here," Sanders said. "It kind of reminds me of stories I heard of Alabama when coach Saban first got there, with the players' ambition, how hard they needed to work and what they needed to do in order to get to the next point and standard for years to come. I feel like TCU is in that moment right now. Last year was a stepping stone. Now we are building on it."