Troy utilizing sometimes-overlooked JUCO, FCS athletes to bolster roster

Published 9:53 am Thursday, July 20, 2023

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As some college football teams across the country use the Transfer Portal to build rosters, rather than add depth, junior college – and FCS and Division II – athletes are sometimes overlooked. Troy University Head Coach Jon Sumrall, though, is using those “lower” ranks to bolster his roster.

As of May, more than 8,000 football players had entered the transfer portal. According to Sports Illustrated, more than half of those players go unsigned every year. Many colleges across the country – especially among the Power 5 programs – are using the portal to bring in potential game changers to their roster. In fact, new Colorado head coach Deion Sanders has brought in dozens of players from the portal to completely change his roster.

Defensive end Raymond Cutts (31) was a JUCO All-American last season.

Troy has certainly used the transfer portal to its benefit, as well. Going into the 2023 season, the Trojans have added nine transfers from FBS schools, including eight from Power 5 programs. Those transfers include Kentucky receiver Chris Lewis, Iowa safety Reggie Bracy, West Virginia quarterback Goose Crowder, Louisville defensive end Zach Edwards, Auburn running back Jordon Ingram, Memphis running back Asa Martin, Oklahoma State center Eli Russ, Auburn offensive tackle Coby Smith and UAB tight end Brody Dalton.

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Some of those players – notably Bracy, Martin, Crowder and Russ – have already been on campus since the spring, and were able to make an impact in spring practices. Before the transfer portal, the junior college (JUCO) ranks provided depth and starters to teams across the country. Aaron Rodgers, Tyreek Hill, Alvin Kamara, Lavonte David, Antonio Gibson and Montez Sweat are just a few current NFL players that came from the JUCO ranks. NFL Hall of Famers Warren Moon, Keyshawn Johsnon and Roger Staubach also came from JUCO schools.

With the rise of the transfer portal – as well as many FBS players still having an extra year of eligibility from the COVID years – things have become tougher for JUCO athletes. Many athletes end up starting out in the JUCO ranks because of grades, others had discipline problems and others simply were not able to find a Division I school out of high school for a number of reasons. Sumrall continues to recruit the JUCO ranks aggressively.

“The guys in the transfer portal at times maybe get a touch over-recruited,” Sumrall said. “Coinciding with the transfer portal is name, image and likeness (NIL), too. So, not only are some of those guys getting over-recruited but some are getting a hefty paycheck, too.

“An area that has maybe been overlooked is the JUCO ranks. We signed a couple of young men that were high school qualifiers. Everyone ends up at junior college for different reasons. You still have guys that are utilizing the COVID year because 2020 didn’t go against anyone’s eligibility but we still have to get (scholarships) down to 85.”

Troy added a total of 11 players from the JUCO ranks in the 2023 Recruiting Class. Many of those players were already in Troy during the spring. A pair of East Mississippi Community College (EMCC) transfers – and childhood friends – have already caught Sumrall’s attention.

Elijah Philipe, one of the top JUCO lineman in the country, signed with Troy. (Submitted photo)

“Steven Cattledge and Ethan Conner are from EMCC,” Sumrall said. “Steven was the No. 1-ranked linebacker in all of America in JUCO. I’ve coached at a couple of SEC schools and have coached a couple of first round draft picks at linebacker and (Cattledge) can go do a workout and fit in with all of those guys. He looks the part and is a smart kid. He was an automatic qualifier (grades made him eligible for NCAA schools) out of high school, too.”

Conner has already benefited from Troy’s strength and conditioning program.

“Ethan Conner is a 6-foot-4-inch athlete that showed up here at 214 pounds and through our strength program, he weighed in last week at 234 pounds. He’s put on 20 pounds of solid muscle in the last six months.

“Ethan played primarily at receiver at EMCC, and a little bit at quarterback. Other schools in our conference recruited him at receiver but I was very open with him. I said, ‘You could play receiver and might be average but I think you can come here and play tight end and might play in the NFL.’ He came to play tight end and I think he will provide mismatch issues for some people.”

Another JUCO transfer that will certainly standout to Troy fans is Newark, NJ offensive tackle Elijah Philipe. The 6-foot-6-inch, 310-pound behemoth had numerous FBS offers when he was projected to graduate from junior college in December. His graduation was pushed back until the spring semester, which allowed Troy to continue to recruit the Lackawanna College lineman.

“He had offers from several SEC schools when he was projected to get out of JUCO with his (associates degree) in December and that got pushed back a little,” Sumrall said. “We continued to recruit him and stayed with him and were able to sign him. He’s 6-foot-6-inches and 310 pounds and moves like a tight end and can bend. He’s special and already looks like an NFL player.”

Other JUCO transfers that have joined the Trojans are East Central linebacker TJ Thompson, Hutchinson safety Dasheen Jackson, Garden City bandit Raymond Cutts, New Mexico Military Institute punter Robert Cole, Georgia Military center Boaz Stanley, Northeastern Oklahoma A&M offensive tackle Kobe Williams, Hudson Valley receiver Robert Bruce and Blinn College receiver Caleb Chappelle.

Troy isn’t just scouring the JUCO ranks for “hidden gems”, though. The Trojans also added transfers from NAIA, Division II and FCS schools, in the 2023 Recruiting Class.

“From a transfer portal standpoint, we’ve had more success dropping down to lower levels and finding FCS and Division II players that are proven players and bringing them up than going to get SEC guys that haven’t really produced,” Sumrall said. “I believe, to some extent, a good player is a good player no matter where you’re at. I don’t care if it’s in the SEC or the Sun Belt or Division II. The lower levels of the transfer portal have probably been more beneficial for us than maybe going after those SEC guys.”

Receiver Landon Parker (23) hauls in a pass during T-Day. (Photo courtesy of Troy University Athletics)

Wofford transfer Landon Parker has already made an impact at Troy, earning reps at receiver and punter in the spring. He broke receiving records at Wofford but was also an All-American punter, as well. Troy has also added Alabama State safety Irshaad Davis, Southern Utah cornerback Damaje Yancey, Austin-Peay long snapper Will Spain and East Tennessee State offensive linemen Tavon Matthews and Blake Austin from the FCS ranks.

Additionally, Troy has brought in East Central Oklahoma cornerback Don Callis from the Division II ranks and Langston punter Elliot Janish from the NAIA.