We’ve finally reached the final team in our Sun Belt preview series, the Troy Trojans.
Neal Brown is entering his fourth season in Troy with a 71.4 win percentage as head ball coach, including a 4-8 pilot season.
This year may be Brown’s biggest test yet, as the college football world will see if what he’s built is a fully sustainable victory machine.
A new quarterback, new running back stable and a brand new defensive line will be taking the field this fall for the Trojans as the team eyes another Sun Belt title.
Brown and staff must find Troy’s third starting quarterback in nine(!) years-not counting spot starts- before the season-opening showdown with Boise State.
The two front-runners have been Kaleb Barker and Sawyer Smith and they’ve been neck and neck throughout the entire process.
Both have some game time experience, with Barker playing last year while Smith redshirted and Smith playing in 2016 while Barker redshirted.
Barker is a dual threat while Smith is a mobile pocket passer. Smith is the better passer and has a sound pocket presence. Barker is a better runner at the second level and in open space.
While the race has been tight, Barker maintains a small lead in practice and takes the first reps in each drill.
Whoever takes the field first on September 1, coaches are adamant that the drop off from four year starter Brandon Silvers will be minimal.
To make things a little more trickier, Troy will also have to sort out its backfield following the graduation of 3,877 rushing yards in Jordan Chunn and Josh Anderson.
Four different tailbacks could be touching the football within the first couple of weeks for the Trojans. Jamarius Henderson, BJ Smith, Jabir Frye and DK Billingsley are all expected to see the field.
Henderson is easily the most talented of the group but has to prove a few things to the coaching staff in order to gain their trust. Smith will likely be right behind Henderson in carries while Frye adds lightning-strike potential.
This unit could be effective if it finds a groove early, but it needs to gel quickly in order for Barker/Smith to settle in.
While running back is a question mark, the starting quarterback certainly won’t have to worry about who they’ll be throwing to.
Sure-handed Deondre Douglas and uber-talent Damion Willis lead a receiver group that runs deep. Along with those two, Troy also returns Tray Eafford and Sidney Davis.
Now throw in Louisville grad transfer Traveon Samuel and his 1,622 all-purpose yards and you’ve got one of the top receiver groups in the conference.
The Trojans also have a strong offensive line, returning four starters up front. Deontae Crumitie and Tristan Crowder are both All-Conference players and they anchor the group.
Last year, Troy was fourth in the Sun Belt in scoring and fifth in total offense. It took six games for the Trojans to crank the offense into gear in 2017 but cannot afford to do that again this year.
On the other side of the ball, things are a little less complicated. Troy is stacked, plain and simple.
Despite losing its three defensive line starters and two linebackers, the consensus view is that the front seven may be even stronger and deeper than last year.
Up front, Trevon Sanders anchors the defensive line at noseguard coming off of a 22 tackle, 5 tackle for loss season as a rotation piece.
He’s joined at defensive tackle by Antoine Barker and Marcus Webb, who combined for 15 tackles for loss last year.
Troy uses just one true defensive end, but as many as four players could see playing time. Rasool Clemons, Jarvis Hayes, John Hines and Kelvin Lucky are all set to be a part of the rotation.
Last year’s leading tackler, Tron Folsom, is back at will linebacker while All-Conference Hunter Reese is back at the bandit following a season in which he registered 14 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
There is depth abound at both spots, with Justin Whisenhunt, Zo Bridges and AJ Smiley among the returning experienced linebackers.
The positions that need to be filled are mike and spear. At the mike, redshirt freshman Carlton Martial burst onto the scene in the spring and has seemingly secured his starting spot this fall.
While the coaches are big on Martial, sophomore Kevin Nixon gives the position some experience.
Troy also returns a pair of dynamic corners in its defensive backfield in Blace Brown and Marcus Jones. The two had seven touchdowns and over 200 interception return yards together last season.
One of the Sun Belt’s top safeties is back in Cedarius Rookard, an intelligent big hitter who plays quarterback for the defense.
Troy’s schedule is fairly favorable. The mid-season Sun Belt stretch can be navigated, especially without Arkansas State on the schedule. A winnable Appalachian State game is what awaits at the end of the season, with the winner likely heading to the championship game. 11-1, 8-0
The first four games of the season are going to be a big test for Troy. With Boise State, Nebraska and Louisiana-Monroe are all on the docket before October even hits. Georgia Southern presents a tricky challenge and, of course, App State caps the schedule. 8-4, 6-2