Once unsure of his role, TCU's Verrett among Big 12's elite corners
At some point last September, TCU's Jason Verrett picked up on a trend. The then-junior cornerback would spend the defense's film sessions eyeing each upcoming opponent's best receiver, making note of the side of the field from which he operated. Then, sure enough, when it came time for Horned Frogs head coach Gary Patterson to divvy up defensive assignments for that week's game, Patterson would tell Verrett to man that side of the field. The implicit trust soon became an unspoken agreement; Patterson's assignments were merely formal acknowledgments of something that was already understood.
"We'll kind of already be on the same page," said Verrett. "It's pretty cool."
After a fall in which Verrett shut down some of the Big 12's elite playmakers -- he helped hold West Virginia's Stedman Bailey to two catches for 30 yards on Nov. 3 and Oklahoma's Kenny Stills to two catches for 16 yards on Dec. 1 -- Patterson was far from the only person who came away impressed. Verrett's five interceptions tied for the fifth-highest total in the country, helping him garner first-team All-Big 12 honors and make a smattering of All-America lists, including SI.com's. He's already been named to the 2013 preseason Lott Trophy watch list, and as the Horned Frogs look to make the leap from a 7-6 Big 12 debut to conference title contention, there is at least one spot on the team that seems to be a sure bet.
"It gives you confidence knowing you can line up with him on the best," said Patterson of his 5-foot-10 standout. "He's not the biggest corner, but he battles you and is smart about what he does. He learns on the field."
That's a fitting sentiment given the start to Verrett's career, which very nearly ended shortly after it began. A former juco transfer from Santa Rosa, Calif., Verrett had barely acclimated to the Texas humidity when he landed a spot in the starting lineup heading into the Horned Frogs' 2011 season opener at Baylor. The game was televised nationally on ESPN, presenting a chance for Verrett to quickly gain recognition on the biggest stage on which he'd ever played.
Verrett attracted the wrong kind of attention. Robert Griffin torched TCU's defense to the tune of six touchdowns, the first three coming at the expense of the newcomer in the No. 2 jersey. A short memory can be among a corner's most coveted tools, but for Verrett -- who only learned the position in junior college and had surrendered just one score at Santa Rosa the previous fall -- that skill hadn't yet been developed. As he sat on the bench while Baylor won a 50-48 shootout, Verrett was mortified. His friends and family had witnessed his on-field nadir.
After the game, he made a round of phone calls: to his father at home; to his mother, who had attended the game; to his big brother, Tre; to Lenny Wagner, his coach at Santa Rosa. Verrett told them all he wanted to pack up and come home, but each countered with a message to stay the course. "Man up," his father said. Verrett even went to talk to Patterson -- who now refers to the Baylor game as "the one where [Verrett] wouldn't come out from underneath the covers" -- to inform him that his first game at TCU would be his last.
Patterson's response helped keep Verrett in place by reframing failure as a challenge to build character: "You've got to be able to handle adversity," Verrett remembered his coach saying. "You've got to grow up."
Said Verrett this spring: "I didn't really wanna quit. I was kind of lost. I was thinking of all the wrong things instead of just taking it as one game with 11 more to go."
After the meeting, Verrett embraced the clichés about taking things one play and one day at a time. He studied the film of his mistakes, looking for pre-snap reads he should have made and post-snap errors that proved costly. He awaited a chance to return to the lineup, and he got his shot two weeks later against Louisiana-Monroe, when he made five solo tackles in a 38-17 win. The next week he was a starter yet again, and two weeks after that he hauled in his first Division I interception at San Diego State. By season's end, Verrett had racked up more tackles (58) than any TCU cornerback in 10 years to earn an all-conference honorable mention nod.
But even with success, he kept a chip on his shoulder. Midway through his standout junior campaign in 2012, he got a shot at redemption against Baylor, when the Horned Frogs visited Waco on Oct. 13. As if Verrett needed any further motivation, Tre sent along some online chatter from Baylor fans clamoring for new Bears quarterback Nick Florence to target Verrett like Griffin did. Verrett relished the opportunity. "I was blessed to have a chance to be back on that field where I gave up three touchdowns," he said. He notched three tackles and one pass defended in a 49-21 TCU victory.
Heading into this fall, Verrett's goal is extremely lofty: help the Horned Frogs make a push for their first BCS national championship. With nine starters back from last season's 16th-ranked total defense and six starters returning on offense, TCU will look to convert some of last year's close losses -- three of its five defeats came by seven points or fewer -- into wins in its second season in the Big 12.
Verrett, who will graduate in December with a degree in general studies, has prepped for his final collegiate campaign by not only working on his ball skills, but also by trying to grow more comfortable as a vocal leader. With the next generation of TCU defensive backs looking up to him, Verrett has a valuable tale to tell.
"Everybody's gonna face times where they feel they're struggling or put down," said Verrett. "I feel like my story will be able to uplift people going through the same situation."