Season Preview: Trojans hungry to repeat as conference champs

Published 9:45 am Thursday, August 17, 2023

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The Troy Trojans are looking to repeat as Sun Belt Champions in 2023 for the first time since 2009.

Troy is coming off one of the most successful seasons for the Trojans since the move to Division I in 1993. Troy won 12 games, the most wins since 1996, and won the school’s first SBC Crown since 2017 and first bowl win since 2018.

Year two under head coach Jon Sumrall brings a number of mysteries with new coaches and new players throughout the program. Defensive coordinator Shiel Wood and offensive line coach Cole Popovich are no longer with the program. Stepping into their roles are veteran defensive coordinator Greg Gasparato and offensive line coach Joe Bernardi.

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“I love both of them and the style (of coaching) and energy they bring,” Sumrall said. “Greg comes from the same system and same structure of what we’ve been doing. He comes from the same family, the same (coaching) tree, if you will, of defensive lineage.

“So, none of our terminology (on defense) is changing. Joe Bernardi is a very similar thing, too. He comes from the same background of what we were doing here, too. There’s not a lot of change in regards to how we do things but I do love the energy that both of them bring and they’re both really good recruiters.”

The Trojans also lose a number of key players on both sides of the ball. All-Sun Belt offensive linemen Austin Stidham and Jake Andrews are gone along with All-Sun Belt receivers RaJae’ Johnson and Tez Johnson. On the defensive side, Troy must replace All-Sun Belt nose tackle Will Choloh, linebacker KJ Robertson, safety Craig Slocum Jr., defensive lineman Shakel Brown and the all-time FBS tackles leader Carlton Martial. Making matters even tougher is the fact that transfer safety Reggie Bracy and All-Sun Belt defensive end TJ Jackson were both suspended at the beginning of fall camp.

Still, Troy returns key players at a number of key positions along with bringing in a slew of new, hungry faces on both sides of the ball. One of those returners on offense is veteran quarterback Gunnar Watson.

“He’s been a stud. He’s absolutely owned being a leader and leading himself, but also impacting everyone else the right way,” Sumrall said of Watson. “I’m fired up about what he’s doing. He’s playing and preparing and practicing like a guy that came back for his sixth year. He’s on a mission and I’m really thrilled about the direction he’s headed.”

Also back this season is All-Sun Belt running back Kimani Vidal (1,132 yards and 10 TDs in 2022) and a stable of running backs that includes former Memphis star Asa Martin and Troy veteran Damien Taylor. At receiver, Dothan native Jabre Barber is back after missing much of 2022 with a foot injury.

“He’s the workhorse out there (at receiver),” Sumrall said of Barber. “He’s extremely dependable and reliable and also very dynamic and is an outstanding teammate. When we lost him in the middle of the year I think it took our offense a couple of weeks to figure out how to move forward, because we built so much around him. “He was the most consistent and explosive player in our offense. I’m really fired up to have him back and the sky’s the limit to what he can accomplish.”

On the offensive line, Troy returns veteran starters Grant Betts, Daniel King and Derrick Graham. Both King and Betts started all 14 games at right guard and right tackle, respectively. Already turning heads this fall has been Oklahoma State transfer center Eli Russ.

Other key transfers on the offensive side include junior college (JUCO) transfer offensive tackle Elijah Philipe (6-foot-7-inches, 300 pounds) and Auburn transfer offensive tackle Colby Smith (6-foot-8-inches, 341 pounds) along with JUCO transfer tight end Ethan Conner, former Kentucky receiver Chris Lewis, former Wofford receiver and punter Landon Parker and JUCO transfer offensive lineman Boaz Stanley.

On the defensive side, Troy returns veterans like All-Sun Belt edge rushers Javon Solomon and Richard Jibunor along with linebackers Jayden McDonald and Terry Thomas, All-Sun Belt cornerback Reddy Steward and safety Dell Pettus. The Trojans have also brought in plenty of new faces on defense, including former FCS All-American safety Irshaad Davis, JUCO All-American defensive end Raymond Cutts, JUCO All-American linebacker Steven Cattledge and former Louisville defensive end Zach Edwards.

The Trojans have a tough schedule to navigate in 2023. After opening the season on Sept. 2 against Setphen F. Austin – on DeMarcus Ware Day – the Trojans will then travel to Manhattan, Kan., to face off against No. 16-ranked Kansas State. Troy then hosts James Madison and Western Kentucky for back-to-back tough home games.

Back on the road, Troy plays Georgia State on Sept. 30 before hosting Arkansas State on Oct. 7 on Homecoming. The Trojans then take the 1,100-mile trip to West Point, NY, to face off against Army on Oct. 14 before traveling the other way to face Texas State on the road on Oct. 28.

On a short week, the Trojans then host rival South Alabama on Thursday, Nov. 2, for the Battle for the Belt, which will air nationally on ESPN2. After some much needed rest, the Trojans return to the road to face Louisiana-Monroe on Nov. 11 and host the regular season home finale against Louisiana on Nov. 18. Troy closes the regular season on the road at Southern Miss on Nov. 25.