Tuesday, July 12, 2011

ESPN/Blue Ribbon Team Up

The following is copied from the ESPNsider area. A fairly comprehensive preview of the 2011 Trojans.

Editor's Note: ESPN Insider has teamed with Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook to provide a comprehensive look at all 120 FBS teams. To order the complete 2011 edition of Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, visit www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857 Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern. This information is up to date as of June 25, 2011.

ABOUT

Life as a head coach at the Football Bowl Subdivision level can change in a hurry. The same guy who signs a multi-year extension can, in the span of less than one calendar year, find himself jobless.

That's especially true in the Sun Belt Conference these days. Heading into 2011, three of the league's nine teams have new head coaches. Add in Western Kentucky's Willie Taggart and ULM's Todd Berry, and the majority of the conference has experienced coaching changes since Barack Obama was elected president.

And yet, Larry Blakeney endures at Troy. "We get coaches fired in our league that are good people and dang good coaches," said Blakeney, entering his 21st year as the Trojans' head coach. "You've got to play two or three guarantee games to make the budget for the whole athletic department and then fight your guts out to have a chance to compete in your league. "I'm not trying to sound amazing or anything, I'm just trying to say that a lot of my peers, that I think a lot of as football men, have been passed on and put out of the office of the head coach because of, in my opinion, the tough schedules we have to deal with."

There's no secret behind Blakeney's longevity at Troy. He wins football games -- lots of them. The 2010 Trojans reeled off three straight victories to notch the 15th winning record under Blakeney's stewardship, and clinch at least a share of the Sun Belt title for the fifth straight year.

Troy and FIU finished atop the league standings with identical 6-2 records, though the Golden Panthers earned the automatic bowl bid by virtue of winning the head-to-head tiebreaker. That 52-35 loss to FIU, on the Trojans' home field, still sticks in the craw of all those affiliated with the Troy program.

With eight starters back on defense and one of the top returning skill-position players in the league, quarterback Corey Robinson, Troy intends to contend in the Sun Belt yet again. "Going in with the bull's eye on your chest, we should be used to that," defensive coordinator Jeremy Rowell said. "We want to win it. With a couple of losses that we had last year, we'd like to come back and redeem ourselves on some of that."

QUARTERBACKS

Only one freshman cracked the top 30 in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total offense last season and he plays for the Trojans. Corey Robinson (6-0, 214) accomplished that feat for Troy in 2010, after completing 321-of-505 passes for 3,726 yards with 28 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Among all Troy signal-callers, only Levi Brown has thrown for more yards in a single season, and Robinson equaled Brown's record for completions.

Robinson enters his sophomore season with no chance of losing his starting job, barring injury, but that wasn't the case a year ago. "He got yanked in the first game when he threw back-to-back interceptions," said offensive coordinator Kenny Edenfield, a former quarterback at Troy himself.

The national record holder for single-season touchdown passes in high school with 91, Robinson was not the typical redshirt freshman last season. He arrived at Troy in January of 2009 as a grayshirt, then sat out the 2009 campaign, giving him plenty of snaps in practice before he saw the field in a live situation.

Jamie Hampton (6-1, 212), who began the 2008 campaign as the starter, saw the field in Troy's Wildcat package until he broke his leg in the fifth game of the season. The fifth-year senior was still recovering this spring but should be at full strength by preseason camp. He'll serve as Robinson's backup.

Freshmen Luke Barnes (6-2, 195) and K.D. Edenfield (6-0, 185), the son of Troy's offensive coordinator, went through spring drills after grayshirting. The Trojans also signed Dallas Tidwell (6-7, 200). Two of the three freshmen should redshirt, but one of them will have to be positioned as the third-string QB in case disaster strikes and Robinson and Hampton get hurt.

RUNNING BACKS

Troy has to replace starting tailback DuJuan Harris, but the most productive runner on the roster returns to the fold.

Junior Shawn Southward (5-8, 182) led last year's team in both carries and total rushing yards, compiling 623 yards on 115 touches with seven touchdowns. Southward is not a giant, but he's got enough muscle to run downhill and break tackles.

Fellow junior Chris Anderson (5-8, 185) spent a good chunk of spring practice cross training at inside receiver, but he's also next in line behind Southward and should play both positions. What Anderson lacks in breakaway speed he compensates for with his ability to make cuts.

Troy split carries primarily among three backs last season. If that strategy persists, there's a good chance signee Montrell Conner (6-2, 220) claims a share of the reps. A sophomore, Conner began his career at Mississippi State, where he redshirted in 2009 before transferring to Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mendenhall, Miss. Coming out of high school, ESPN rated Conner the seventh-best running back in the country. His presence will make it tougher for juniors T.J. Mitchell (5-7, 184) and D.J. Taylor (5-11, 228) to make the rotation.

RECEIVERS

New York Giants draft pick Jerrel Jernigan leaves a huge void after setting both the school and Sun Belt records for catches, receiving yards and all-purpose yardage.

Replacing his production is a tall task, but it's compounded by the fact that Troy lost the five leading receivers from last season. Tebiarus Gill and Jason Bruce joined Jernigan as exiting seniors. Then Chip Reeves and Jamel Johnson, fourth and fifth on the team in receptions, were among four Trojans ruled academically ineligible for the 2011 season.

Reeves and Johnson were starters at Troy's X and Z outside receiver spots coming out of spring practice, but losing Reeves is a particularly huge blow. He was Troy's fastest player and earmarked as the team's new No. 1 receiver. In their absence, senior Brett Moncrief (6-3, 205) becomes Troy's top returning wideout from last season with 16 catches for 214 yards and a pair of TDs and he missed spring practice with a broken foot.

Moncrief should be the starter at Z receiver, one of Troy's two outside spots. Redshirt freshman B.J. Chitty (6-3, 177), sophomores Eric Haskins (6-3, 195) and Felton Payton (6-0, 193) and junior college transfer Hollis Moore (6-3, 195) are among the others vying for playing time at either outside position, X or Z.

Corey Johnson (6-1, 185), another junior college product, enrolled early and went through spring, putting him a step ahead. He and sophomore walk-on Justin Albert (5-8, 175), a running back, move to the top of the list at H-receiver, the slot in Troy's scheme.

Sophomores Sam Haskins (6-4, 214) and Khary Franklin (5-7, 165) and junior T.J. Mitchell (5-7, 184) are also candidates at inside receiver heading into preseason practice. With so little proven experience available, any depth chart will remain in a state of flux as Edenfield tries to put together this puzzle.

"We'll do some shuffling around at those spots as fall camp gets started, and just see how they're progressing," the coordinator said, adding "We might play some young guys a little quicker than I thought."

ESPN ranked freshman Bryan Holmes (6-0, 170) as one of the top 100 receivers in the country, and freshman Chandler Worthy (5-9, 175) should get his first chance at H-receiver, Troy's slot position.

The entire two-deep at tight end from last season is gone, but Blakeney thinks highly of sophomores Jim Teknipp (6-6, 225) a transfer from UCF and Gavin Ellis (6-6, 239). Both should have chances to make plays in the passing game. "The tight end is open a lot. If you rig it up for him, he's going to have some chances to make plays," Blakeney said. "We're better, I think, at that position than we've been."

OFFENSIVE LINE

As a staff, Troy embraces the concept of rotating personnel on offense -- except along the line. "We try to find who can play for us," Edenfield said. "If there are seven guys that can play, then we play seven guys."

The Trojans should be able to count on at least that many players up front in 2011, despite losing three starters. Senior left tackle James Brown (6-4, 329) tops the list. A second-team all-conference pick last season, Brown enters his third year as a starter as a potential pro prospect, in Blakeney's opinion.

Juniors Kyle Wilborn (6-4, 311), also a third-year starter, missed the spring recovering from shoulder surgery. He has prior experience at left tackle or right guard and could fill either spot -- or center, if neither senior Zach Swindall (6-1, 282) nor junior college transfer Andrew Phillips (6-3, 315) rise to the occasion to replace two-time all-conference choice Tyler Clark.

Jacob Creech (6-3, 292) logged three starts at left guard in 2010 before a shoulder injury shut him down for the season. He missed spring ball still recovering from the surgery but will be ready in August to battle with Jay Stansberry (6-3, 269) to be the right guard. Massive junior DeMarkus Underwood (6-6, 315) redshirted last season after signing out of junior college and has dropped about 30 pounds since he arrived on campus. Underwood's in the lead at right tackle, with redshirt freshman Terrence Jones (6-4, 315) his closest competition.

Junior college transfer Cody Woodiel (6-4, 275) enrolled early, as did freshman Zach Johnson (6-3, 300). They're in the mix at tackle and guard, respectively. Junior Jarred Fleming (6-5, 281) is another option at tackle, and sophomore Cody Jenkins (6-5, 325) is competing at guard.

DEFENSIVE LINE

With 14 years experience on the Troy coaching staff, including the last six as defensive coordinator, Jeremy Rowell identifies one key to success when trying to stop the various versions of the spread offense in the Sun Belt Conference. "If you can pass rush from the edge and can create pressure from that guy, then you've got a really good chance in this league," Rowell said.

No team in the Sun Belt boasts a more accomplished rusher off the edge than Troy senior end Jonathan Massaquoi (6-2, 250), a first-team All-Sun Belt choice who led the league in both sacks (13.5) and tackles for loss (20.5) last season. That total included 2.5 sacks against Ohio, a New Orleans Bowl record. "He's not right every time, but he makes up for it by making a bunch of plays," Rowell said. "And, he's relentless to the football. He creates pressure on the passer. People are conscious of him. You've got to try to block him. He's a force to be dealt with."

Troy's starting ends combined for 24 sacks and 36 tackles for loss last season, but the other part of that equation -- Mario Addison -- was a senior. John Robles (6-4, 245) was Addison's backup and enters his senior year as the starter opposite Massaquoi. Robles was a bit undersized when he arrived last year out of junior college but has bulked up and should be ready to make an impact.

Rowell expects junior college signees Marty Stadom (6-2, 240) and Xavian Evans (6-5, 265) to claim the backup jobs and provide some competition for Massaquoi and Robles when they arrive this summer. Seniors R.J. Roberts (6-3, 241) and Brandon Boudreaux (6-2, 231) also could play, depending on how deep a rotation Rowell uses at end. Boudreaux certainly is strong enough; he benched 225 pounds 44 times at Troy's last pro day.

Returning nose tackle Emmanuel Dudley (6-1, 285) missed the spring recovering from ankle surgery but should reclaim his starting position. Junior Tony Davis (6-0, 252) is the incumbent at the 3-technique, but he'll be pushed in preseason practice by sophomore John Clark (6-4, 275), who missed most of spring ball.

Senior Sidell Corley (6-3, 288) missed four games in 2010 with an Achilles injury but was healthy this spring and got most of the work at nose in Dudley's absence. Corley and junior Jeremy Elder (6-4, 275) began their collegiate careers at LSU and Alabama, respectively.

Junior college transfer Tony Gillespie (6-2, 315) immediately will become the heaviest option on the interior when he arrives on campus.

Rowell plans to substitute liberally at both tackle spots. "We've had a couple dominant guys there before. And we don't have that guy right now," he said. "Let's get as many people as we can play and keep them fresh and keep them rotating and keep the pressure on the offense by playing so many different people."

LINEBACKERS

Xavier Lamb (5-9, 220) led the Trojans in tackles and ranked ninth in the league in stops per game. A senior, he should continue to set the tone for Troy's defense for a second straight season -- while also aligning the front as Rowell's middle linebacker. Junior Brannon Bryan (6-0, 230) returns at the Will spot. He did not come close to matching Lamb's production, but Rowell likes Bryan's intelligence and competitiveness.

The third spot on the second level of the defense is what Rowell calls "a nickel linebacker." It makes it look as if Troy is running a 4-2-5, but it's still the 4-3 base, with that linebacker playing out in space.

Junior Kanorris Davis (5-10, 205) is set to start there, with sophomore Johnny Thompson (6-0, 215) behind him. Davis, who has forced five fumbles in his career, is a tremendous athlete who can run a 4.4-second 40 and boasts a 42-inch vertical jump. Junior Jacoby Thomas (6-0, 245) has played a bunch of football for Troy and backs up Lamb. Redshirt freshman Mark Wilson (6-2, 225) was listed as Bryan's understudy on the post-spring depth chart.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Rowell, who also serves as position coach for the secondary, introduced some new concepts for the safeties this spring. Free and strong safety are out. Left and right are in. It allows Rowell to teach all the safeties the same way in the event guys have to play different spots because of injury.

Senior Barry Valcin (5-11, 195) was one of several players at the back end who were hurt in 2010. Valcin fractured and dislocated his ankle during an onside kickoff drill last preseason. This technically marks his last season but Valcin intends to petition the NCAA for an extra year of eligibility. "I thought he was the best football players that we had on defense, and we lost him before the first ballgame," Rowell said.

Fellow senior LaDarrius Madden (6-0, 200) was scheduled to redshirt last season but ended up starting by the end of September because of the injuries at safety. Madden may have to concede some playing time to junior Brynden Trawick (6-3, 210), a talented addition from junior college who began his career at Michigan State and impressed this spring.

Sophomore Cam Hudson (5-10, 193) appeared in every game as a true freshman. Angelo Hadley (5-11, 190) is another junior college transfer with three years' eligibility left. Freshman Joe Lofton (6-0, 175) enrolled in January after taking a grayshirt last fall. The depth chart at cornerback received a jolt when KeJuan Phillips, a starter coming out of spring practice, was ruled academically ineligible. That still leaves three corners with starting experience last season: junior Bryan Willis (5-9, 182), senior Jimmie Anderson (5-8, 154) and sophomore Chris Pickett (5-10, 170). Redshirt freshman Dionte Ponder (5-11, 175) was a consensus three-star prospect out of high school.

Two junior college signees, David Whitmore (6-1, 190) and D.J. Jones (5-10, 165), arrive this preseason. Whitmore went to high school with Valcin, and Jones began his collegiate career at Wake Forest.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Troy was respectable on punt and kickoff coverage, but there's a huge question mark in the return game. Jernigan, in addition to his work as a receiver, got all the work on punt returns and was Troy's primary option on kickoffs as well.

Anderson and Southward, Troy's top two running backs, each got a few chances on kickoff returns last season and could take over that duty. "We're not sure who the punt returner's going to be," Blakeney said, though Pickett and sophomore walk-on Justin Albert (5-8, 175) were listed on the post-spring depth chart.

Long snapper Wes Henry (6-0, 242), a senior, is back. Robinson will be the holder.

KICKERS

Senior place-kicker Michael Taylor (5-10, 215) led all specialists in the Sun Belt in scoring, tallying 101 points while going 17-of-20 on field goals -- with a long of 50 yards -- and making 50-of-53 extra-point tries.

Taylor heads into his third season on kickoffs as well, where he averaged 60.9 yards with nine touchbacks among 85 attempts.

PUNTERS

Troy had one of the better punting units in the Sun Belt. Senior Will Goggans (6-0, 233) ranked third in the league with a 42.2-yard average, and the Trojans were second in the conference in net punting.

Goggans was masterful at pinning opponents deep. Twenty of his 64 attempts were downed inside the 20, and he had only three touchbacks.

NEWCOMERS

Blakeney heavily emphasized the line of scrimmage in his 2011 recruiting class, bringing in nine linemen among the 20 players who sent in their letters of intent on national signing day.

Troy also had seven players enroll in January and go through spring practice.

The Trojans traditionally have recruited junior colleges heavily and this was no exception, with 12 of the 27 signees falling in that category.

Running back Montrell Connor, who ran for 506 yards and seven touchdowns on 132 carries at Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) Community College last season and originally signed with Mississippi State, comes with big-time credentials. As a high school senior, he was first-team Class 5A all-state and rated the No. 11 player in talent-rich Louisiana. Conner, who has run a 4.4 40, rushed for 1,961 yards and 19 touchdowns his senior season at Quachita Parish High School.

JUCO receivers Corey Johnson and Hollis Moore will also get every opportunity to contribute immediately.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

Troy is a traditional contender in the Sun Belt, and 2011 promises to be no different.

Robinson's return anchors the offense, and the defense should be much improved with eight returning starters and an influx of new talent headlined by Trawick.

The biggest question lies at receiver, where the Trojans will have to replace almost every key contributor from a year ago. That's a daunting proposition given how much Troy throws the football. No team in the Sun Belt had as many pass attempts last season. Nevertheless, the league race should come down to Troy and FIU again.

1 comment:

  1. This was a very fair and honest assessment, from what I've seen from the spring games. Looking forward to the return of a nationally ranked defense. It's been far too long...

    ReplyDelete