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 throwing for nearly 6,000 career yards, Duggan lost the job to Chandler Morris in the offseason and was pushed to second string.
Duggan could have entered the busiest quarterback transfer market ever and immediately found a Power Five starting job. Even during the season, it's becoming popular to step away from the team, utilize a redshirt season and enter the transfer portal. Had Duggan chosen that path, he could have had two years of eligibility remaining at a new school.
TCU coach Sonny Dykes has dealt with competitive quarterback battles dating from his time at SMU all the way back to tight battles on Mike Leach's Texas Tech staff. When an incumbent loses the starting job, the writing is on the wall. Usually, he has to have conversations with the backup to improve their body language or gauge if he will have a scholarship to fill. It can become a distraction.
"Well, none of that happened," Dykes said.
Sonny Dykes got emotional talking about @TCUFootball senior QB Max Duggan, who lost the head coach that recruited him, then his starting job under Dykes...and never pouted.— Jeff Kolb (@JeffKolbFOX4) September 24, 2022
Sonny: "Emotional about it honestly just because I think he's the way you'd want your son to handle that." pic.twitter.com/gj8vH4vAWm
When Morris suffered a sprained knee against the Buffaloes, Duggan was ready. And since being slotted back into the starting lineup, he has responded with the best football of his career – by far – to lead TCU to an unexpected 5-0 start for the first time since 2017. The Frogs sit atop the Big 12 and appear to have their best shot at a conference title since their 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 one time. How many people can you say that about in your life? I mean truly, how many people that you know?
"You can say it about Max Duggan, that's for sure."
Confident, elevated play
Through five games, Duggan has unequivocally been one of the best quarterbacks in the country and a borderline Heisman Trophy contender. The senior has thrown for at least 300 yards and three touchdowns in three of his past four games. In the past two, he has rediscovered his rushing game with 171 yards and three touchdowns on more than 12 yards per carry.
Duggan ranks No. 2 nationally in yards per pass attempt and passer rating behind only behind Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud. His 73.2% completion percentage trails only Michigan's J.J. McCarthy, UCLA's Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Maryland's Taulia Tagovailoa at the Power Five level.
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 Duggan's partial game against Colorado off the board 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 quarterback in college football, regardless of level.
"I walked off the practice field on [Oct. 4] and I saw two or three passes that I felt like I've never seen him make before," said Dykes "The ball's out on time, he's anticipating, he'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 the game on Saturday. You're starting to see stuff and realize this is pretty high-level stuff. I think a big part of that is just his belief in what he's doing and the people who are doing it with him."
TCU previously had a string of coaches with Air Raid ties running the offense. Dykes and TCU offensive coordinator Garret Riley are both branches of that tree after coaching and playing at Texas Tech under Leach.
"I don't think it's such a different scheme or anything like that," said Riley. "I just think it's confidence and repetition."
Confidence is a word you hear a lot around the facilities in Fort Worth. TCU's staff doesn't try to beat opponents with pure schematic brilliance or hundreds of different formations; it's getting players to do things they understand and executing concepts at a high level.
"The consistency that we have concept-wise and schematically that we go on week-to-week [makes the system work]," said Duggan. "It's similar things that we carry over. I think there's a lot of confidence that Coach Riley and Coach Dykes put in you as an offense -- and as a quarterback being able to play free and play confident. It's been fun playing in the system."
That increased confidence is measurable. Last season, Duggan averaged 3.2 seconds to throw on every passing dropback. This year, it's down to 2.56 seconds. Duggan also averaged 3.4 scrambles per game in 2021, which is down to just 1.5 in his four starts this year. On 67 snaps when blitzed last season, Duggan completed 50% of passes and dropped 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.
Put into plain English, Duggan isn't panicking anymore. He's calmly going through reads, making the right decision and trusting his teammates to make plays. The results have set the bar for everyone in Fort Worth.
More impressively, Duggan is achieving these numbers with effectively the same roster as last season. The top five receivers on the team were around in 2021, along with four of the top five rushers. 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 has energized his teammates. "I feel like everybody feeds off his energy," said wide receiver Taye Barber. "He's the starting quarterback, so everything kind of goes through him since he touches the ball every play."
Duggan committed to TCU at a time when it was enjoying peak performance under longtime coach Gary Patterson. Fresh off a trip to the 2017 Big 12 Championship Game, the Frogs had appeared in a bowl game in 12 of the previous 13 seasons with nine 10-win seasons. The previous two quarterbacks to graduate were Trevone Boykin and Kenny Hill, both of whom became stars during their time in Fort Worth.
When Duggan finally arrived in 2019, however, Patterson's program was slowly beginning to atrophy. After a wave 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 lows, like throwing 21 passes for 65 yards and a touchdown the following week against Oklahoma.
The season ended without a bowl trip for the first time in six years and was just a harbinger of things to come before Patterson was dismissed 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 during a 5-7 campaign in 2021 that Sports Reference rated as the worst for TCU since it left Conference USA in 2004. Morris showed some flashes, however, and led an upset of eventual Big 12 champs Baylor. After a close battle in spring and fall camp, Morris was deemed a better fit for the offense.
"I was more disappointed in myself just because everyone wants to play and be the guy," said Duggan. "But I got over it. I didn't feel sorry for myself. I didn't pout. I knew that wasn't going to help the team. I didn't really worry too much about it."
Opportunity struck for Duggan when Morris exited the Colorado game. Emotions were high as neither Morris nor the staff knew the severity of the injury, but Duggan didn't have time to wait. The staff kept things easy for Duggan, giving him just three pass attempts in two drives during a 38-13 victory before third-string Sam Jackson took the field.
"I think his maturity is definitely a big reason," said Riley. "The confidence he has in himself to say, 'I'm going to do whatever I can to be a great teammate and be ready when my number is called' ... it was great for the rest of our guys to see that if this guy can do it, everybody else needs to take the same approach."
Entering the Heisman chat
One week after the Colorado game, TCU opted to give Duggan some new concepts. Then, they gave him a few more the next week. Then, a few more the next week. Soon, Duggan's production was turning heads. Dykes previously said he feels like he needs 18 months at a new job before the program really feels like it's his. Just 10 months after taking the job, he has TCU sitting at No. 13, its 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 major national television audience, it could be the perfect moment for Duggan to move from the periphery of the Heisman Trophy discussion to the center. But Duggan doesn't care. After years of struggles, he just wants to win.
"He's a warrior," said Riley. "He's going to compete no matter what the situation is. I think that breeds a lot of confidence for the rest of the players. If this guy can be in the situation that he was coming into the season, play like he's playing right now and be as tough as he is, I think that's a good thing for the rest of our guys to see.
"If your quarterback is doing it, everyone else better be doing it."