Trojans get set for season opener against SFA

Published 8:37 am Tuesday, August 29, 2023

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Ahead of the 2023 football season opener, Troy Trojans head coach Jon Sumrall held his first weekly press conference to preview the first opponent of the season, Stephen F. Austin.

While much of the talk was about the upcoming opener, the biggest news coming out of the press conference was the announcement that All-Sun Belt defensive end TJ Jackson was back with the team. Jackson was suspended at the start of fall camp due to a violation of team rules.

“TJ Jackson is back with our team,” Sumrall flatly said. “His status in regards to playing Saturday is still pending. He’ll probably find out right before the game what I will do there. We’re glad to have him back in the fold after a suspension, though.”

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Jackson’s return to the defensive line will bolster the Trojans’ already deep pass rush.

Sumrall had plenty of positive things to stay about Troy’s opening opponent, Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks are coming off a 6-5 season in 2022 in which they won the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Championship in the FSC.

“They’re defending conference champions and are coming off three straight winning seasons,” Sumrall said of SFA. “They have established a winning tradition there. Their head coach, Colby Carthel, won a Division II National Championship (at Texas A&M Commerce). He has a really good history of success.

“They return 15 starters from last year’s team and all of the offensive line is back. They have 154 games of experience across the offensive line. That is extremely impressive. If there is one place you want to have a lot of experience back, that’s the offensive line and they have it.”

The Lumberjacks are replacing their starting quarterback from last season but return a pair of quarterbacks that got playing time last season. Brian Mauerer is a Tennessee transfer that completed 12-of-13 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns last season, while Baylor transfer Preston Weeks completed 11-of-18 passes for 155 yards and three touchdowns.

On the defensive side, the Lumberjacks return experience and size.

“Defensively, their front is really big,” Sumrall said. “I was blown away by their size. Their nose guard is 340 pounds, bigger than anyone on our defensive line. (Defensive end) Amad Murray is 6-foot-5-inches and 255 pounds and is a high-level collegiate football player. They also have a transfer from North Texas at (defensive tackle) who played a little bit of football there. They also have an outside linebacker, an edge rusher like our ‘bandit’ position that is a long, athletic, twitchy good pass rusher. Their front is really good and really long and really big.”

Sumrall was adamant that the opener won’t be a cakewalk and his Trojans must respect their opponent.

“I have a lot of respect for these guys,” he said. “They’ve had three straight winning seasons, we have one. Anyone who thinks this is going to be anything other than a tough, hard-nose blue-collar game is mistaken. Our guys better be ready to play. This is an established program and our guys have a tough test ahead of them and I’m looking forward to it.”

Earlier on Monday, Troy released the depth chart for the season opener and while there were few surprises for the Trojan faithful, one true freshman did crack the starting lineup. Enterprise freshman MJ Johnson will handle kickoff return duties at a position Sumrall emphasized needed to improve from last year.

“At kickoff return, MJ is going to take the opening kickoff return for us. I’m fired up about what he’s done in training camp,” Sumrall said of Johnson. “That’s a place where I think we need to grow from last season. Our return game needed to be more dynamic and we’re going to do that.”

Sumrall pointed to another Enterprise native as an example of how explosive the kick return game can be.

“When I was a special teams coordinator here in 2017 we had a guy here named Marcus Jones,” he continued. “He ran back two kick returns in the same game against Coastal Carolina. One was blocked well and the other one I don’t think we blocked anyone and he still scored just because he was that good of a returner. So, whose back there with the ball in their hands matters and I think MJ and Jabre (Barber) both have the ability to take it to the house.”

Troy will open the season this Saturday, Sept. 2, at 6 p.m. against Stephen F. Austin at Veterans Memorial Stadium. The game will also stream live on ESPN+.