As the first practice of the spring football season came to a close, each player took a knee. They were silent and attentive – a far cry from the roaring encouragement handed out just minutes before, by players such as junior safety Brian Bonner and sophomore center Blake Schlueter. The first day of spring practice, a beautiful day by all accounts, had come to an end, but not before former quarterbacks coach Dick Winder gave the team a proper goodbye. By the end of his talk, Winder, who recently stepped down after five years at TCU, was given a standing ovation by players and staff. The scene then escalated into something coaches say is perhaps reflective of this group of Horned Frogs: The team began to belt out the lyrics to the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” from the musical “Oklahoma!”

“That’s kind of been his little rallying cry to tell people, ‘Hey, look up – life’s not that bad,'” head coach Gary Patterson said. “‘A whole bunch of people don’t get a chance to play the game like you do in a program like this.'”

Coming off of an 11-2 season that culminated with a 37-7 rout of the Northern Illinois Huskies in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, the Frogs have enjoyed incredible success since 2000. The Frogs are in exclusive company as they can claim seasons of 10 wins or more in five of the past seven seasons, joining the USC Trojans, Texas Longhorns, Oklahoma Sooners and Boise State Broncos as the only Division I programs to share the distinction.

Despite all their success, the Frogs still have some unsettled business to attend to this spring season in the form of regaining their place atop the conference standings, Patterson said. The Frogs stumbled midway through the season with back-to-back losses against the Utah Utes and eventual conference champion, the BYU Cougars. Patterson said the staff has already begun to watch film on BYU in preparation for next season’s showdown in Provo.

“Maybe, by some standards, 11-2 is a great year, but, for us, you know, still winning the (conference) championship is still really important to us,” Patterson said.

Spring practice gives the coaching staff a better idea as to which returning players can step up and fill in for the departed seniors of the previous season’s team, and this spring season is no exception. The graduation of seniors such as MVP quarterback Jeff Ballard, Lombardi Trophy candidate offensive tackle Herb Taylor, wide receiver Quentily Harmon and free safety Marvin White leaves the Frogs looking for replacements at key positions.

Although the staff has not decided who will fill the various open starting slots, including the hotly contested opening at quarterback, Patterson said the team’s reserve players are just as important, if not more important, in contributing to the program’s success during the course of a season.

“The biggest thing we talk about all the time here is you win championships with your twos and your threes,” Patterson said in reference to second-string and third-string players. “There is no such thing as a starter – there has never been. The best player is going to play whether a freshman or a senior. That’s what championship programs do. You’ve got to have a high level intensity of competition.”

Luckily for Frogs fans, the defense won’t need to replace many starters for a unit that was ranked No. 2 in the nation in total defense behind only Virginia Tech. Despite the No. 2 ranking, Patterson said there is still room for improvement.

“We feel like we didn’t tackle as well as we did two years ago,” Patterson said. “To be the No. 2 defense in the nation and say you didn’t tackle very well gives you a lot of chance for improvement.”

Even with nine out of 11 starters returning for a defense that stifled offenses to just 12 points per game and less than 61 rushing yards per game, junior linebacker David Hawthorne said, the returning starters bear responsibility for helping with a smooth transition for the new players looking to crack the defensive rotation during spring practice.

“The guys that are already here, they have to pick up the slack for the guys coming in and filling those positions,” Hawthorne said.

The spring sessions force players – inexperienced and seasoned alike – to return to the type of practicing and conditioning that has guided them to wearing TCU purple, he said.

“I’ve been here for four years, and every year, you just got to go back to the basics,” Hawthorne said. “If you want to keep the tradition going of playing TCU football, you just got to go to the beginning where you started off, and just let the season take care of itself.”

With the football team returning to practice, talk has already begun about TCU crashing a BCS bowl … la Boise State. While that has yet to be seen, one thing is for certain about the beginning of spring football: Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ it is to be a Horned Frog.