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College Football Preview 2023: 19. Troy Trojans

Gunnar Watson, Troy

19. Troy Trojans

With several AAC powers moving on, the Troy Trojans have the chance to be the new class of the Group of Five

2022 Review
Fresh off three consecutive five-win campaigns, new head coach Jon Sumrall had a clear mandate in Year One with Troy: make a bowl game. Two losses within the first month, even if they were road games with Ole Miss and Appalachian State, appeared to make that goal an uphill battle. Instead, the Trojans rattled off 11 consecutive victories to close out the year, which included a Sun Belt Championship Game win over Coastal Carolina and Cure Bowl victory over UTSA. It was one of the most impressive debut campaigns by any first year head coach in FBS ball, especially considering the improvement of the Sun Belt in recent seasons. The next mandate for Sumrall is just as clear as his first: prove 2022 was no fluke and keep the momentum going. That certainly appears to be within reach, as the Trojans bring back a slew of key contributors and have a schedule that points towards another successful campaign.

2023 Outlook
Offense: Troy entertained a quarterback competition entering last fall, with college football journeyman Jarret Doege battling Gunnar Watson, who started seven games down the stretch in 2021. Watson emerged as the guy and put together a rock-solid campaign, throwing for 2,818 yards and 14 touchdowns. With Doege officially gone, can Watson take it up another notch? He played like one of the Sun Belt's best down the stretch, but limiting turnovers will be priority No. 1 in 2023.

Expect the Trojans to lean heavily on a power-run attack, as they did for the majority of 2022. Junior Kimani Vidal is one of the most underrated tailbacks in the nation, a multiyear starter who had his breakthrough moment a season ago. At 5'8", Vidal is a speedster who can squeeze through running lanes, and at 215 pounds, his durability hasn't suffered. Even so, don't be surprised if the Trojans utilize some of the other pieces in the backfield in an effort to lessen the load on Vidal.

One of those pieces is Asa Martin, who began his career at Auburn before a pit stop at Memphis. The veteran is the type of talent that doesn't often come to Troy, and he's proven to be a productive playmaker, totaling 435 yards and seven touchdowns with the Tigers last fall. Add in sophomores Jarris Williams and Damien Taylor, Troy should be able to keep this backfield fresher than most in the league, which should be a major factor down the stretch.

The transfer portal giveth and the transfer portal taketh away, as the Trojans learned this offseason. While they were able to plug numerous holes on their roster with the help of the portal, they lost one of the Sun Belt's bright young stars, wide out Tez Johnson. Replacing his 863 yards won't be easy, but the more important loss will be his ability to stretch the field vertically.

Troy is hoping that junior Deshon Stoudemire can step up and be the new alpha on the outside. Stoudemire has shown steady progress since transferring in from the JUCO ranks and is a slick, well-rounded receiver that can line up in several spots. He might not have the ceiling of Johnson, but should ensure this receiver room doesn't drop off a cliff. 

Alongside Stoudemire, holdovers Jabre Barber and Marcus Rogers could be in store for greater things, while the Trojans also used the portal to add Landon Parker from Wofford and Chris Lewis from Kentucky. Lewis actually made my annual "Ten Players Ready for the Sophomore Leap" article, but never seemed to carve out a role in Lexington. A change of scenery could be just what he needs for the 6'4" giant on the perimeter.

Playing a physical, ground-oriented attack certainly relies on a capable offensive line. There are some concerns to be wary of here, but Troy once again filled holes where necessary in the portal and should feel okay with where this position group stands entering fall.

Left tackle Austin Stidham was a staple for Troy for several years, while center Jake Andrews went in the fourth round to New England. Replacing both will be a tough task, but Eli Russ comes over from Oklahoma State and could anchor the interior of this unit. Russ played in 16 games during his Oklahoma State tenure, but will need to adjust quickly. Fortunately, being flanked by two vets in Daniel King and Grant Betts should help out quite a bit.

Don't expect Troy to be chucking the ball all over the field in 2023, but this offense has enough pieces to put together another successful campaign. Vidal and Watson offer a great starting point and there's reason to believe the receiver group and offensive line should remain quality. Who knows, if Watson continues to progress, this could be one of the better offenses the Sun Belt has to offer.

Defense: In an era defined so much by offense and scoring points, I came to truly appreciate Troy's stifling defense in 2022. It's not a group loaded with future NFL talent, but an incredibly tough and disciplined unit that battles you for every inch.

The results spoke for themselves last fall: Troy finished Top 20 nationally in total defense, eighth in yards per play, and eighth in scoring defense. It wasn't just beating up on weak competition either; the Trojans held numerous high-scoring offenses in check, including Western Kentucky, Coastal Carolina, and UTSA.

Being dominant on defense this fall will be slightly tougher with some of the familiar faces that leave the program, but there's still plenty of proven experience. That's particularly true along the defensive line, which could be among the best in the Group of Five. Tackles T.J. Jackson and Buddha Jones are proven commodities whose athleticism make this unit much more dangerous at the point of attack. Jackson will get after the quarterback, as he notched 6.5 sacks in 2022.

In addition to Jackson and Jones on the interior, junior Javon Solomon will move from the "Bandit" hybrid position to a true defensive end spot. Solomon is a relentless defender who earned All-Sun Belt consideration a season ago. He'll be joined on the edge by Raymond Cutts, who was a JUCO All-American while playing at Garden City Community College. It will be a return to the FBS ranks for Cutts, who originally began his career at UCF.

It's hard to provide an appropriate description for departed linebacker Carlton Martial that encapsulates what he means to this program. But, simply consider the accolades he racked up while at Troy: the all-time FBS leader in career tackles (577), the 2022 Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year, and a four-time All-Sun Belt honoree. Needless to say, replacing arguably the greatest player in program history isn't easy, but the Trojans could still survive with this linebacker corps.

For one, senior end/linebacker Richard Jibunor appears ready to handle an even larger role. Jibunor earned All-Conference recognition after a 7.5 sack 2022, but he's hoping to evolve his game and be more than just a pass rusher this fall. The rest of this linebacker group is short on star power, but there's still experience here, and bringing in Iowa transfer Reggie Bracy will help. Look for senior Jayden McDonald to get first crack at replacing Martial at middle linebacker. There's certainly a drop-off, how could there not be, but McDonald has spent several years in the program and proven to be productive.

There's good news in the secondary, as the Trojans made significant strides in this area a season ago and return every key piece, with the lone exception being safety Craig Slocum. His absence could put more pressure on senior safety Dell Pettus, but the veteran appears ready to handle it, as he finished with 66 tackles last year and has shown he can make plays all over the field.

Both cornerback spots are locked in, as senior Reddy Steward and junior O'Shai Fletcher are back in the fold. Steward is arguably the top playmaker on this defense and a headache for opposing offenses, as he picked off three passes in 2022 and deflected 12 balls. Senior Keyshawn Stevenson looks like he will take over for Slocum at the vacated strong safety spot, although keep an eye on junior college newcomer Dasheen Jackson. He comes over from Hutchinson Community College and had plenty of interest from other FBS programs.

Losing a legend like Martial is always an extra tough pill to swallow when you're a Group of Five program, but this defense was more than just one guy in 2022. I suspect they'll find a way to remain stingy, especially when you consider everything that's back on the D-Line and in the secondary. In fact, I have a feeling this group will remain a Top 25 defense nationally.

Special Teams: There are some questions on special teams for the Trojans. Kicker Brooks Bruce and punter Mike Rivers both depart after impressive seasons, and they will have to make do without Tez Johnson in the return game. Zach Long and Scott Taylor Renfroe are set to battle it out in a kicker competition that will last into fall camp, while it's a bunch of newcomers looking for inside track at punter.

Bottom Line
Neal Brown proved that you could build a consistent winner at Troy, but it appears as though Jon Sumrall has his sights on even loftier goals. Last season was a statement by the first-time head coach, and things set up perfectly for a special encore. For one, both sides of the ball back proven experience at every level, and a capable quarterback leading the way. Just as important, despite the improvement of the Sun Belt in recent years, the Trojans manage to miss most of the other top dogs in the conference during the regular season, most notably Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina. Add in the fact that the Group of Five conferences are undergoing a bit of a transition due to the Big 12, AAC, and C-USA shuffle, it's a golden opportunity for Troy to contend for a New Year's Six bowl. 

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
It's been a meteoric rise for head coach Jon Sumrall up the FBS coaching ladder, as the 40-year old heads into his second season at Troy. The Kentucky alum worked his way up through the Group of Five coaching ranks, with a pit stop at Troy from 2015-2017 as associate head coach and LB coach. Sumrall returned to his alma mater in 2019 and after two years coaching ILB and as co-DC, he was rewarded with his first head coaching gig. Although the Trojans extended him through 2026 over the offseason, don't be surprised if more Power Five programs come calling, particularly if he builds on last season. The offensive coordinator is Joe Craddock, who followed Chad Morris from Clemson to SMU and then Arkansas before a stint at UAB as TE coach. There is a new defensive coordinator in town, as Greg Gasparato replaces Shiel Wood, who took the same job at Tulane. Gasparato is another fast riser in the coaching ranks who was most recently OLB coach at Louisville.

Recruiting Breakdown
Nestled in fertile recruiting grounds, the next step for Troy as a program will be beginning to reel in the impressive high school talent throughout the Southeast. They've focused primarily on the JUCO ranks, landing names like Elijiah Philippe out of Lackwanna CC in Pennsylvania and Steven Catledge out of East Mississippi CC. However, there are some high school pieces that could develop into long-term contributors for the Trojans, namely corner Jack Tchienchou and tackle Tyler Bell. Tchienchou is the type of prospect Troy is looking to build around, a versatile defensive back who had Power Five interest and comes from the highly competitive Atlanta area. 

2023 Schedule Analysis
There are no ranked SEC foes on the schedule this year for the Trojans like there were in 2022, but a September 9th road trip to Kansas State will give Troy a chance to prove themselves on the national stage. The Wildcats will undoubtedly be favorites, but getting them early in the year is a win for the Trojans, as K-State will be looking to break in a new offense that will no longer have dynamic tailback Deuce Vaughn. A home game against Western Kentucky poses another non-conference challenge for the Trojans, but the conference slate looks very attractive. Each one of the road games are winnable: at Georgia State, at Texas State, at Louisiana-Monroe, and at Southern Miss. Getting South Alabama, likely Troy's toughest competition in the Sun Belt West Division, is also a win, albeit on a short week. Even so, expect the Trojans to be favored in as many as 10 of their regular season games, a great recipe for them to repeat as conference champs.

2023 X-Factor: Jayden McDonald, LB
No one player is going to be able to produce the same results as Carlton Martial, who leaves town as the most accomplished player in Troy football history. Instead, the Trojans are hoping a committee approach can pick up the slack and keep this front seven stingy. The key name in that committee will be senior Jayden McDonald, the presumed starter at middle linebacker, the spot vacated by Martial. McDonald appears ready to step up; the one-time Iowa transfer has spent several years in the program and proven to be a tackling machine when healthy. In fact, he was one of the defense's top players in 2021 before injury sidelined him for the season's second half and he also missed significant time last fall due to health problems. Staying on the field will be crucial for the veteran, who is the type of athletic, instinctual linebacker that makes this defense go. If he can, I don't suspect that significant of a drop-off for this defense, especially with so much back on both the D-Line and in the secondary.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 11-2 (7-1 Sun Belt, Win Sun Belt Conference Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: RB Kimani Vidal
Defensive MVP: S Dell Pettus
Impact Freshman: CB Jack Tchienchou
Impact Transfer: LB Reggie Bracy
Breakout Player of the Year: DE Javon Solomon

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