If I said that Troy was going to be the best opponent Nebraska was going to face in the non-conference part of the 2018 football schedule, you might do a double take. While Akron has the name coach (Terry Bowden) and Colorado has a Power Five pedigree (allegedly, though they did win ten games in 2016), Troy has proven themselves to be a sneaky-good team despite playing in the Sun Belt conference.
In 2016, eventual national champion Clemson sweated out a 30-24 victory over the Trojans. Last fall, LSU invited Troy into Death Valley for homecoming and trailed the whole night, losing 24-21. So in case you are thinking this one is a gimme, think again.
That being said, Troy is missing several key pieces from last year’s team starting with four-year starting quarterback Brandon Silvers. In 2018, it’ll be either sophomore Sawyer Smith (6’3” 219 lbs.) or junior Kaleb Barker (6’1” 206 lbs.). As a freshman, Smith edged out Barker to be the backup in 2016, but redshirted last season. In 2016, Smith completed 18 of 25 passes for 181 yards; he also rushed 19 times for 73 yards. Last season, Barker completed eight of 13 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown while rushing nine times for 101 yards. Neither quarterback distinguished themselves from the other, so it’s a battle that will continue through August.
Troy also needs to replace their top two running backs from last season, though junior Jamarius Henderson (5’11” 214 lbs.) is certainly intriguing. Last season, Henderson rushed 45 times for 366 yards (7.9 yards per carry!) and four touchdowns. He redshirted in 2016 after transferring from Memphis, where he rushed for 320 yards on 60 carries and four touchdowns, including 11 carries for 77 yards and a touchdown against Kansas. Junior B.J. Smith (5’9” 203 lbs.) rushed for 161 yards as a freshman and 101 last season. Big juco transfer Kevin Perkins (6’0” 230 lbs.) was expected bring some thunder to the Trojans; Perkins rushed for 884 yards and 12 touchdowns last season at Northwest Mississippi Community College, earning second-team all-conference honors. However, the Dothan Eagle reported on Monday that Perkins had left the program due to academic issues. That leaves junior B.J. Smith (5’9” 198 lbs.) as the only other running back with experience (101 yards and two touchdowns last season).
Troy’s top two receivers from last season, seniors Deondre Douglas (6’1” 202 lbs) and Damion Willis (6’4” 199 lbs.) return this season. Last season, the pair caught 48 and 42 passes respectively, combining for 1,248 yards and seven touchdowns. Douglas wound up on the second team all-conference list while Willis earned honorable mention. Sophomore Tray Eafford was impressive in his freshman season, catching 17 passes for 314 yards and three touchdowns. This trio will be joined by Louisville graduate transfer Traveon Samuel (5’7” 170 lbs.), who caught 21 passes last season for 339 yards including a 78 yard catch against Clemson. Whomever ends up at quarterback should have some of the better receivers in the Sun Belt to throw to this fall.
Four returning starters on the offensive line is another reason to be optimistic about Troy’s offensive prospects. Senior center Deontae Crumitie (6’3” 304 lbs.) and junior guard Tristan Crowder (6’4” 336 lbs.) were second team all-Sun Belt honorees last season, while junior tackle Kirk Kelley (6’4” 320 lbs.) was honored on the third team. Junior tackle J.L. Gaston (6’4” 295 lbs.) also returns on what should be one of the best lines in the Sun Belt.
While Troy head coach Neal Brown is known for his offensive background, Troy’s defense has been pretty good as of late, thanks to former Kansas State linebacker and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. SB Nation’s Bill Connelly charted the progress of Koenning’s defense from 78th in 2015 to 17th last season. Graduation losses may force a step back this season, but Troy should still be in the upper tier in the Sun Belt.
With no returning starters, Troy’s defensive line is a great example of this year’s transition. It’s not as if Troy doesn’t have some players. Junior defensive tackle Marcus Webb (6’3” 279 lbs.) was third on the defense with four sacks last season and fourth in tackles for loss with 8.5. He’ll be joined by senior defensive tackle Treyvon Sanders (6’2” 327 lbs.), sophomore defensive end Kelvin Lucky (6’4” 225 lbs.) and junior defensive end Antoine Barker (6’3” 265 lbs.); these four combined for 24 tackles for loss and eleven sacks last season as backups.
Linebacker play should be fine in 2018 with second team all-Sun Belt weakside linbacker Tron Folsom (6’2” 218 lbs.) returning for his junior season. As a sophomore, Folsom lead the team with 80 tackles, nine for a loss. Senior outside linebacker Hunter Reese (6’1” 225 lbs.) led the Trojans with 6.5 sacks last season, earning him first team all-Sun Belt honors. Two sophomores, Kevin Nixon (6’1” 212 lbs.) and Tyler Murray (6’1” 186 lbs.) will be called upon for much bigger roles this season; as true freshmen, the duo combined for 32 tackles last season.
Troy’s secondary should be the best in the Sun Belt this season, led by senior Blace Brown (6’0 186 lbs.). Last season, Brown had 33 tackles and led the team with five interceptions and six pass breakups, earning him first team all-Sun Belt honors. As a sophomore in 2016, Brown ranked sixth nationally with six interceptions. He’ll be paired up with sophomore Marcus Jones (5’9” 170 lbs.) who had 49 tackles, six pass breakups and two interceptions as a true freshman. Senior free safety Cedarius Rookard (6’1” 210 lbs.) has been a three year starter and was the second leading tackler last season with 74. Oklahoma transfer Will Sunderland (6’3” 201 lbs.) should see extensive action at safety or as a nickel back; the former four-star recruit was suspended by the Sooners after being arrested on charges of stealing video game systems from a campus dorm last summer.
A strong defense should more than offset the offensive questions for Troy in 2018. However, if Nebraska can figure their offensive line struggles from recent years this summer, the risks of an upset (ala Troy over LSU or Northern Illinois over last year’s Huskers) should be mitigated.
What’s your prediction when Troy invades Memorial Stadium again?
This poll is closed
Nebraska still has a Mike Riley-hairball to cough up, making the Troy Trojans look like Southern Cal. It’s another upset.
The Huskers are still feeling their way out of their pit of despair; this one is tight, but the Big Red wears Troy down in the end.
Too many questions with Troy’s offense gives the resurgent Blackshirts the opportunity to shine. NU rolls.