TCU defensive coordinator Joe Gillespie utilizes schemes, lessons from Stephenville in College Football Playoff

Photo courtesy of TCU Athletics

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FORT WORTH – Joe Gillespie spent the first 21 years of his coaching life in the high school ranks in the state of Texas, so it was no surprise that the TCU defensive coordinator watched the 2022 national championship game in the THSCA hotel near the Riverwalk at the American Football Coaches Association Convention in San Antonio. 

His viewpoint figures to be much different on Monday night when Gillespie stands on the sideline with his Horned Frogs defense in Los Angeles in the College Football Playoff finale against Georgia in Los Angeles. And he knows plenty of eyes back in Texas, and in Charlotte at this year’s AFCA Convention, will be fixated on a defense he’s tinkered with since matching wits with Art Briles and Chad Morris led units at practice in Stephenville over a decade ago. 

“I promise that the excitement was the same for the state title games as an assistant and as a head coach at Stephenville,” Gillespie said. “Right now, I’m trying to keep doing what we’ve been doing – take it one game at a time and put our kids in the best position to go have fun and play ball.”

Forgive Gillespie if he and his 3-3-5 defense isn’t afraid of the moment. After all, he’s reached the mountaintop a few times in his career. Jim Harbaugh and Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl wasn’t much different for Gillespie than the state title win over El Campo back in 2012. Slowing down Briles and Morris in practice was much more stressful. 

It should come as no surprise that being a defensive coordinator in Texas at the turn of the century was the perfect breeding ground for a defense capable of stopping modern offenses. Most innovations start on the cutting room floor of high school football and trickle upwards to the college game. 

That was true when Emory Bellard brought the Wishbone from Breckenridge and San Angelo to the University of Texas at the end of the 1960’s. Hal Mumme was crafting the Air Raid at Copperas Cove late in the 1980s. And Briles was formulating the next phase of offensive attack just as Gillespie was earning his chops. 

Glance around college football and you’ll see teams using multiple formations, motions, and a lot of tempo. Gillespie was defending those exact concepts every day in practice at Stephenville. And that’s where his version of the 3-3-5 was honed. He needed more speed on the field, and he needed more flexibility.

“Art, who was the head coach when I started working with the secondary at Stephenville, definitely wasn’t going to show me any relief,” Gillespie remembered with a chuckle. “I can remember being out there and going through it and wishing he’d slow down and give me a chance to teach a little bit, but I remember him saying, ‘you’re going to have to learn how to teach on the run because I’m going to have you running all over the place.’ And I did.” 

Gillespie compiled a 72-23 record as a head coach, along with that state championship and three outright district titles, in seven seasons as the head coach at Stephenville – his alma mater. The Yellow Jackets reached the playoffs in each of those seasons from 2008 to 2014. 

He was an assistant for 13 years at Stephenville before taking over as the head man, helping win state titles in 1998 and 1999. Gillespie began as a defensive line coach in his five years serving Briles. He coached linebackers and safeties in his five years under Morris. He then moved to co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach under Mike Copeland. All three titans of the industry. 

“A lot of the men who’ve shaped my life were high school coaches, so I couldn’t wait to be a high school coach,” Gillespie said. “Getting to coach for those men was a blessing for me. They gave this young punk a chance.” 

And that’s how the story was supposed to end. Gillespie, a lifer in Stephenville outside of one year as a junior high coach and a college career at Angelo State, could’ve kept competing for state titles in his hometown until he and his wife Jodi decided to ride off into the sunset. Gillespie turned down a few college opportunities before. After all, he knew Briles and Morris, both of which went on to coach in college. 

But, for reasons even Gillespie can’t explain, he joined the Tulsa staff as the linebackers coach in 2015. He became the defensive coordinator in 2019 and stayed there until Sonny Dykes called him while building the staff at TCU prior to the 2022 season. Gillespie successfully transitioned the Golden Hurricanes from a four-man front to his patented 3-3-5. Dykes tasked Gillespie with the same chore, this time moving the Horned Frogs from their traditional 4-2-5 under storied head coach Gary Patterson. 

“The thing that is fun about (the 3-3-5) is a lot of kids get to showcase different talents,” Gillespie explained. “We can get into a 3-5-3, a 3-4, a 4-2-5, a 4-3. We can get into a lot of different looks with the same personnel.” 

Some stats lie. The 2022 defensive stats for TCU tell a complete and unavoidable story. The transition was smooth and successful. The Horned Frogs dropped their points allowed per game average from 34.92 in 2021 to 26.43 in 2022. Opponent’s average per rush attempt went from 5.8 to 4.1. TCU allowed 34 rushing touchdowns in 12 games last season. That number is just 24 through 14 contests in 2022. 

And it doesn’t stop there. The defensive unit accounted for 12 more turnovers this season. Offenses averaged 7.2 yards per play against TCU in 2021. That number was 5.5 in 2022. They only allowed 34.47 percent of third down conversions compared to 46.53 a year ago. Most importantly, the group has allowed nine fewer total touchdowns than last year despite playing two more games. 

“Going through a coaching change is never easy,” Gillespie acknowledged. “This defense, quite frankly, is much different than the one they played in previously. But they didn’t just dip their toes in the water. They jumped in headfirst and told me to coach them hard. Change is the one constant in life, and I’m proud of how our guys approached it” 

In short, the high school coach is doing just fine. But we knew he would. Look around the Lone Star State. Joey McGuire led Texas Tech to eight wins, including victories over Texas and Oklahoma in the same season for the first time in program history. His Red Raiders finished above .500 in Big 12 play for the first time since Mike Leach last roamed the sideline in 2009. Jeff Traylor led UTSA to its second consecutive Conference USA title as the Roadrunners transition to the American Athletic Conference. 

“Us high school coaches are used to dealing with the players we inherit,” Gillespie explained. “I think that’s why Joey McGuire and Jeff Traylor are having so much success. We know how to be flexible based on our personnel. It just shows that when you ban together and start believing in each other, anything can happen.”  

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