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1. Modernizing an old classic
At least the identity was similar.
Larry Blakeney's 24-year tenure as Troy's head coach ended during the 2014 season; after winning at least eight games for five straight seasons from 2006-10, thereby establishing the Trojans as a true presence in the Sun Belt (just as he had at the Division II and FCS levels), results diminished late in his career. The Trojans fell to 3-9 in 2011, rebounded to 6-6 in 2013, and just had nothing after that.
Blakeney was replaced by former offensive coordinator Neal Brown, and while the results weren't great, there was in no way a massive identity change. This felt like Troy football.
Blakeney's run was perhaps defined most by occasionally prolific passing offenses (he served as boss for renowned offensive coordinators like Tony Franklin and Brown) and athletic pass rushes (Troy alumni: Demarcus Ware, Osi Umenyiora). Perhaps it was comforting, then, that in the first post-Blakeney season, Troy threw the ball pretty frequently and rushed the passer well.
In 2015, Troy actually graded out reasonably well overall, too; at 90th in S&P+, the Trojans ranked higher than bowl teams Georgia State, Tulsa, Nevada, and New Mexico. But a slow start and an 0-3 record in one-possession finishes meant improvement mostly showed up on paper instead of in the win column.
This fall, Troy is shaping up as an optimist-vs.-pessimist team. An optimist can point out that the Trojans have a two-year starting quarterback and most of a defense that was too thin last fall but boasts quite a bit of experience this time around.
A pessimist, meanwhile, will point out that the only explosive skill position weapons are gone, as are the best pass rusher and two best defensive backs.
At the least, Troy was able to modernize last fall. Brown is still only 35 years old for a few more days, and he's hired a staff of assistants that are either young and hungry, tied to Blakeney, or both. There appears to be an energy here, as evidenced by what might have been Troy's most well-touted recruiting class ever -- per the 247Sports Composite, February's signing haul ranked second in the Sun Belt (behind only Georgia Southern) and included eight three-star recruits.
If you're looking for the Sun Belt team most likely to overachieve compared to last year's results, the energized Trojans might be a pretty solid choice. We'll just have to see about those skill position guys.
2015 Schedule & Results
|Record: 4-8 | Adj. Record: 5-7 | Final F/+ Rk: 90 | Final S&P+ Rk: 90|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|5-Sep||at NC State||49||21-49||L||24%||8%||-9.0||-2.0|
|10-Oct||at Mississippi State||16||17-45||L||4%||0%||-8.0||+2.5|
|24-Oct||at New Mexico State||118||52-7||W||90%||100%||+44.7||+45.0|
|31-Oct||at Appalachian State||42||41-44||L||67%||60%||+23.7||+21.0|
|27-Nov||at Georgia State||87||21-31||L||19%||7%||-9.2||-9.0|
|Points Per Game||27.9||70||28.3||78|
2. Some truly awesome performances toward the end
The primary reason why Troy graded out pretty well despite the 4-8 record is because the peaks were both high and multiple. Appalachian State, Arkansas State, and Georgia Southern, the three best teams in the Sun Belt by far, combined to play five games at the 90th percentile. But Troy did it three times by itself. The Trojans were spectacular in wins over New Mexico State and the two ULs (average score: Trojans 48, Opponent 13) and looked strong in taking Appalachian State to two overtimes in Boone.
Including an easy win over Charleston Southern, Troy looked the part of a top-50 team five times. For a Sun Belt team, that's awfully impressive. The problem, however, was obvious. In the other seven games, Troy's average percentile performance was 15 percent, which is basically a top-110 level. Inconsistency is to be expected with a first-year coach, a sophomore quarterback, etc., but Troy was remarkable in its high highs and low lows. And adding to the "lose a lot, return a lot" situation above, it means you can see whatever you could possibly want to see in this team this year.
If there's a particularly encouraging aspect, however, it's that there more highs toward the end of the season.
- Average Percentile Performance (first 6 games): 25% (record: 1-5 | average score: Opp 30, Troy 20)
- Average Percentile Performance (last 6 games): 61% (record: 3-3 | average score: Troy 36, Opp 26)
The second half of the season still featured a dud against Georgia Southern and a frustrating loss at Georgia State, but as a whole, the Trojans were demonstrably better in the final six games. That's what you want to see in a transition year.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||40.2%||84||Succ. Rt. +||96.4||87|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||31.2||98||Def. FP+||33.2||116|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity||4.4||73||Redzone S&P+||94.7||98|
|Q1 Rk||54||1st Down Rk||87|
|Q2 Rk||108||2nd Down Rk||65|
|Q3 Rk||62||3rd Down Rk||67|
3. Hitting the brakes
Neal Brown did nothing to change his pass-happy reputation in his first year as a head coach. Led by Brown and co-coordinators Kenny Edenfield (Blakeney's final offensive coordinator at Troy) and Matt Moore (former offensive line coach for Mike Leach and Tommy Tuberville at Texas Tech), the Trojans ran just 49 percent of the time on standard downs (118th in FBS) and 30 percent on passing downs (54th). That's not Leachian, especially on passing downs, but it's easily on the pass-heavy side of the scale.
Still, there was an element of conservatism at play here. Troy hit the brakes from a tempo standpoint, ranking just 117th in Adj. Tempo and averaging a nearly Bielema-esque 66.6 plays per game. (That's actually unfair -- Bret Bielema's Arkansas averaged 68 plays per game.)
At first glance, it appears the slow tempo might have been an attempt at protection. Troy appeared to have only one running back it trusted, and only one receiver averaged more than four targets per game. Plus, the line was a juggled mess, with eight different players starting at least one game and only two starting all 12.
It's hard to go full-speed when you don't think you have the pieces to do it. And judging by the diminishing returns -- Troy ranked 54th in Q1 Q&P+ and 62nd in Q3 but faded to 108th and 124th in the second and fourth quarters, respectively -- it's safe to say the pieces might not have been there.
Tempo probably helped the defense out, too. Depth was a major defensive issue in 2014, and 2015's unit was incredibly bend-don't-break, which meant it was on the field for some pretty long drives.
Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Brandon Silvers||6'3, 214||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7973||202||330||2378||20||7||61.2%||11||3.2%||6.8|
|Sawyer Smith||6'3, 200||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8275|
|Kaleb Barker||6'2, 200||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7956|
|Ramsey Rigby||6'0, 190||Fr.||2 stars||0.7600|
4. Good Brandon was great Brandon
If your team is almost comically up and down, it would stand to reason that your quarterback probably is, too. And while a QB's best games are always better than his worst (duh), the range between Silvers' good and bad was astronomical:
- Silvers' 5 best games: 98-for-142 (69 percent), 1,332 yards (13.6 per completion), 16 touchdowns, no interceptions, 185.0 passer rating
- Silvers' 6 other games: 104-for-188 (55 percent), 1,046 yards (10.1 per completion), four touchdowns, seven interceptions, 101.6 passer rating
That's quite the split. Silvers was outstanding against NC State, Charleston Southern, New Mexico State, UL-Monroe, and UL-Lafayette and terribly mediocre against everyone else. And his success was usually tied to how well Teddy Rubin was getting open. In the "best" sample, Rubin caught 27 passes for 480 yards and seven touchdowns. In the "other" sample, 36 catches for 399 yards and two scores. If Rubin was making big plays, everything clicked.
Rubin won't make any big plays this year, however, as his eligibility has expired. So has that of Brandon Burks, the only running back to average more than 5.5 carries per game.
|Jordan Chunn (2014)||RB||6'1, 227||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7900||111||505||6||4.5||3.5||36.9%||3||2|
|Andre Flakes||RB||5'8, 185||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7893||66||243||3||3.7||4.4||33.3%||5||2|
|Brandon Silvers||QB||6'3, 214||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7973||30||104||2||3.5||1.9||43.3%||3||3|
|Josh Anderson||SUPER||5'11, 253||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8069||10||29||0||2.9||1.1||30.0%||0||0|
|KE'Marvin Pitts||WR||5'6, 155||Jr.||NR||NR||7||4||0||0.6||0.0||0.0%||0||0|
|B.J. Smith||RB||5'9, 185||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8194|
|Jabir Frye||RB||5'7, 170||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7793|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|John Johnson||WR-Z||5'11, 189||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7619||46||23||258||50.0%||11.5%||5.6||54.3%||45.7%||1.09|
|Emanuel Thompson||WR-Z||6'1, 193||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7652||45||28||299||62.2%||11.3%||6.6||68.9%||51.1%||1.23|
|Deondre Douglas||WR||6'1, 200||So.||NR||NR||34||21||172||61.8%||8.5%||5.1||58.8%||41.2%||1.09|
|Clark Quisenberry||WR-H||6'3, 220||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7706||20||14||138||70.0%||5.0%||6.9||70.0%||55.0%||1.06|
|Ismail Saleem||WR-X||5'8, 165||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7719||13||7||63||53.8%||3.3%||4.8||69.2%||38.5%||0.98|
|Andre Flakes||RB||5'8, 185||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7893||12||9||49||75.0%||3.0%||4.1||50.0%||16.7%||2.27|
|Gabe Hill||TE||6'2, 232||So.||NR||0.7000|
|Nyck Young||WR||6'1, 200||Sr.||NR||0.7500|
|Richard Hallman||WR||6'2, 201||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8018|
|Tevaris McCormick||WR||5'10, 180||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7819|
|Dominic Walker||WR||6'2, 210||Jr.||2 stars||0.8363|
|Sam Letton||TE||6'3, 235||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8229|
5. Efficiency? Check
Thanks to the return of Jordan Chunn, who missed most of last season with a broken collarbone, there is at least experience in the backfield. Burks actually had some burst that neither Chunn nor junior Andre Flakes have shown (and didn't have nearly the fumble problems Flakes had last year), but Chunn is a decent efficiency weapon. And while the line blocking for him does have to replace all-conference center Dalton Bennett, just finding the same five guys to trot out onto the field each week should result in improvement in the blocking category.
Now Silvers just needs some receiving threats. Juniors John Johnson and Emanuel Thompson, sophomore Deondre Douglas, and senior Clark Quisenberry are back. None have been remarkable, but they combined for a 59 percent catch rate and a 48 percent catch rate. Combined with Chunn, that's a foundation for a solid efficiency offense, one that might be able to move the chains more consistently.
But there might not be a known big-play threat on the roster. Thompson's 11.2 yards per catch was the highest among the foursome of receivers. That means there's opportunity for a newcomer or two to break through. JUCO transfers Dominic Walker (a former Auburn signee) and Tevaris McCormick and redshirt freshman Richard Hallman will all have a chance to break into the rotation. If someone can either provide a long ball threat or at least show that they can take a short screen a long way, this offense might have the depth and experience to become far more consistent. But that's a mighty if.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||2015 Starts||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Dalton Bennett||C||12||36||2015 2nd All-Sun Belt|
|Antonio Garcia||LT||6'7, 302||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7478||12||30|
|Tyler Lassiter||RT||6'6, 302||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7873||9||9|
|Johnathan Boring||LT||6'5, 306||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7633||7||7|
|Xavier Fields||RG||6'5, 329||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7500||6||6|
|Deontae Crumitie||RG||6'2, 282||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8117||6||6|
|Jay Dye||C||6'2, 275||So.||NR||NR||1||1|
|Zach Branner||OL||6'5, 342||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7898||0||0|
|Damien Kemp||OL||6'6, 294||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8300||0||0|
|James Peach||OL||6'5, 287||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7983||0||0|
|Brandon Niccum||OL||6'4, 295||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7700|
|Tristan Crowder||OL||6'5, 310||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8256|
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||44.5%||96||Succ. Rt. +||89.6||102|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||30.2||58||Off. FP+||28.0||99|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity||4.2||50||Redzone S&P+||103.5||53|
|Q1 Rk||46||1st Down Rk||65|
|Q2 Rk||83||2nd Down Rk||39|
|Q3 Rk||69||3rd Down Rk||51|
6. A passive-aggressive defense
If or when Troy was able to force passing downs, the Trojans were devastating. They had a top-40 passing downs defense and a top-25 pass rush, and on third-and-7 or more, opponents completed only 44 percent of their passes. In fact, opponent passer ratings and completion rates fell dramatically from first down to second to third.
Of course, as aggressive as Troy was when down and distance was in its favor, the defense was equally passive on standard downs. Or maybe "ineffective" would be an even better choice of words. The Trojans were in the bottom 10 in standard downs efficiency, making a few disruptive plays but allowing runners to the second level frequently.
Big play prevention was the name of the game until Troy could leverage opponents into tough situations; then, it was time to attack. This has been the m.o. for defensive coordinator Vic Koenning at a lot of stops, and it can work pretty well. And while Troy's defense wasn't spectacular, the Trojans improved from 123rd in Def. S&P+ to 78th. No complaints there.
The next step: being good on every down.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jamal Stadom||DE||6'2, 266||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||NR||12||27.0||3.8%||5.0||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|Trevon Sanders||NG||6'0, 319||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7644||12||24.5||3.4%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Rashad Dillard||DE||6'1, 261||Sr.||NR||NR||12||24.0||3.4%||9.0||7.0||0||0||2||1|
|Seth Calloway||DT||6'3, 267||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||10||17.0||2.4%||5.0||2.5||0||0||0||0|
|Garrett Peek||NG||6'3, 281||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7552||12||11.0||1.5%||1.5||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Sam Lebbie||BANDIT||6'3, 251||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8528||11||9.0||1.3%||2.0||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Bryan Slater||NG||6'2, 290||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7759||5||1.5||0.2%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Demone Kemp||DT||6'3, 284||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8300||3||1.5||0.2%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Antione Barker||DE||6'3, 218||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8094|
|Uvakeious McGhee||DE||6'4, 239||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7926|
|Baron Poole II||DT||6'2, 280||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7633|
|Kelvin Lucky||DE||6'6, 230||Fr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8499|
|Michael Robinson||DT||6'4, 305||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7941|
|Terrance Corbett||BANDIT||6'4, 220||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7893|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|William Lloyd||WILL||6'0, 214||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7544||12||59.5||8.3%||9.0||3.5||0||0||1||0|
|Terris Lewis||MIKE||6'2, 229||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7900||12||52.5||7.4%||5.5||0.0||0||1||3||0|
|Justin Lucas||MIKE||5'10, 227||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7733||12||32.0||4.5%||6.5||1.5||1||0||0||0|
|Hunter Reese||LB||6'1, 190||So.||NR||NR||6||3.5||0.5%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Doug Salter||LB||5'11, 226||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8104|
|Zo Bridges||OLB||6'2, 210||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8451|
7. Dillard needs a partner
Experience might help with the every-down thing, but the goal will be to maintain the awesome pass rush while improving against the run. We'll see how possible that is now that Tyler Roberts, one of the better disruptors in the Sun Belt, is gone. Rashad Dillard turned into a lovely Roberts complement with seven sacks, but now he's the main guy by default.
Roberts needs to turn into an every-down threat himself; he made only 15 non-TFL tackles and only two non-sack TFLs, meaning he was either sacking the quarterback or disappearing. Jamal Stadom is decent, but presumptive new bandit end Sam Lebbie has a high bar to clear.
This might be a situation where the pass rush regresses a bit but the effect is minimal because Troy is creating more passing downs with good run defense. Sophomore bowling ball Trevon Sanders could be ready for a nice step forward, and he and undersized/quick Seth Calloway could develop into a nice tandem. And in William Lloyd, Terris Lewis, and Justin Lucas, the Trojans have three active senior linebackers (plus two three-star freshmen) to fit into a two-linebacker formation.
So yeah, Troy might have enough playmakers and heft to defend the run better this time around. We'll see if progress is matched by pass rushing regression.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Demetrius Cain||SPEAR||6'1, 215||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||NR||12||36.0||5.0%||2||1||0||4||0||2|
|Cedarius Rookard||CAT||6'1, 206||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7956||10||35.0||4.9%||0||0||0||1||1||0|
|Jalen Harris||CB||6'0, 182||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7894||11||30.5||4.3%||2||1||0||1||0||0|
|JaQuadrian Lewis||CAT||6'1, 192||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7200||12||28.5||4.0%||0.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|A.J. Smiley||SPEAR||6'3, 203||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7956||12||22.0||3.1%||1||0||0||2||0||0|
|Jalen Rountree||CB||5'11, 171||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7659||9||20.5||2.9%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Josh Marshall||CB||5'11, 183||Sr.||NR||NR||12||17.5||2.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Robert Johnson||FS||6'0, 189||So.||NR||NR||12||7.0||1.0%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Dondrell Harris||CAT||6'0, 197||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7806||9||1.5||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|CB||5'10, 185||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8656|
|Melvin Tyus||S||5'10, 204||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7993|
|Kris Weatherspoon||S||6'2, 195||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7785|
|Jai Nunn-Liddell||CB||6'3, 185||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7706|
8. Good news, bad news
Experience might matter in the secondary more than anywhere else on the defense, and in theory Troy's got a lot of it now. Seven returnees recorded at least 17.5 tackles last year, plus Auburn transfer Kamryn Melton and JUCO safety Kris Weatherspoon join the mix.
The problem is playmaking. Two departed players -- safety Montres Kitchens and LaMarcus Farmer -- combined for 6.5 tackles for loss and 13 passes defensed last year, while the aforementioned seven returnees combined for 5.5 and nine, respectively.
Farmer appeared most capable of pouncing on wayward passes thrown by harried quarterbacks. If QBs aren't feeling quite as much pressure, and if the corners aren't quite as successfully aggressive, it's not hard to see the pass defense stumbling a bit.
So basically, experience is a major plus for Troy's defense this year, and that usually leads to improvement. But three of probably the Trojans' four or five best playmakers are gone, and that's a red flag.
|Ryan Kay||6'2, 207||Sr.||61||41.9||7||16||16||52.5%|
|Ryan Kay||6'2, 207||Sr.||0-0||1-1||100.0%||0-1||0.0%|
|Deondre Douglas||KR||6'1, 200||So.||4||17.0||0|
|Special Teams S&P+||78|
|Field Goal Efficiency||79|
|Punt Return Success Rate||34|
|Kick Return Success Rate||115|
|Punt Success Rate||54|
|Kickoff Success Rate||22|
9. Starting over on special teams
Troy's special teams was neither plus nor minus in 2015 -- Jed Solomon's kickoffs were strong, and Teddy Ruben was an excellent punt return man, but these strengths were offset by Ruben's iffy kick returns and Solomon's less-than-perfect place-kicking inside of 40 yards.
None of this matters, however, because both Solomon and Rubin are gone. Solid punter Ryan Kay might be in line to take over place-kicking duties, but there will be new players in most roles. That has to be a concern.
2016 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|17-Sep||at Southern Miss||72||-12.8||23%|
|24-Sep||New Mexico State||117||8.4||69%|
|20-Oct||at South Alabama||115||0.8||52%|
|26-Nov||at Texas State||120||2.1||55%|
|3-Dec||at Georgia Southern||52||-16.4||17%|
|Projected wins: 5.8|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-27.1% (108)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||107 / 110|
|2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||0 / -2.4|
|2015 TO Luck/Game||+1.0|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||55% (57%, 52%)|
|2015 Second-order wins (difference)||5.3 (-1.3)|
10. Do the close games turn around?
Late-season surges are good signs of future growth, as long as the reasons for the surge come back the next year. I honestly can't tell if that's the case here. The overall experience level is a strength, and could give Troy a serious chance at a top-four finish in the Sun Belt. But it's tough to be completely optimistic when so many of your proven playmakers are among the few starters gone.
Assuming Troy doesn't maintain the top-50 form that it had for most of the last half of the season, this season will be, like 2015, decided by close games. Going 2-1 in one-possession games would have meant a 6-6 finish for the Trojans, and Troy heads into this year given between a 47 and 69 percent chance of winning in six games (and between 31 and 76 in nine). If the offense has just a little bit more staying power and can make a few more plays late in halves, that might be enough to flip Troy's record from 4-8 to 8-4. But the burden of proof is on a new set of playmakers to turn potential into production.
My gut says this will be a pretty fun year in Troy. Experience trumps star power pretty often. Still, there are some ifs that need to turn into whens. The future appears bright with an energetic staff and improving recruiting. But 2016's brightness is still a bit unclear.