by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

They don’t pussyfoot around at that school located on George Wallace Drive in southeastern Alabama. Indeed, the Troy Trojans’ emergence as a Sun Belt powerhouse has been one of the more intriguing developments of the last decade in college football. Unlike its hometown that burned down in 1901 and had to be rebuilt from scratch, Troy hit the ground running when making to make the jump from the old I-AA ranks to the top level of competition without enduring too much of an adjustment phase, beating three I-A (now FBS) teams, including Mississippi State, in its “transitional” year in 2001 before attaining full-fledged top level status in 2002 and qualifying for a bowl game in 2004.

Now, Troy is looking for its sixth straight (solo or shared) Sun Belt crown and fourth straight bowl appearance this fall. And the Trojans’ success is serving as a template for others with similar “moving up” aspirations, fueling dreams of wide-eyed sorts at places such as Old Dominion, Georgia State, and UT-San Antonio, all in the process of building gridiron programs from scratch.

The difference between Troy and some of the others, however, is that the Trojans learned to walk before trying to run, building a legacy of success at the lower levels. Troy was pre-cooked by the time it made the jump to the top level, with a well-established HC in Larry Blakeney, a former QB for Shug Jordan at Auburn in the mid ‘60s and then as assistant at his alma mater for 14 seasons before taking the Trojans assignment (at then-called Troy State) in 1991. Blakeney’s formula that worked in the I-AA ranks adapted nicely to the top level of competition, as his penchant for recruiting raw athletes and turning them loose on the defensive side have long trademarked his teams, who have sent the likes of DeMarcus Ware, Osi Umenyiora, and Leodis McKelvin to the NFL in recent years. Blakeney’s ability to reload was illustrated by last year’s team that had significant rebuilding on both sides of the line of scrimmage but still managed to record an 8-5 record that included a 48-21 demolition of Frank Solich’s surprisingly overmatched Ohio U Bobcats in the New Orleans Bowl.

One worthwhile adjustment that Blakeney made a few years ago was upgrading the offense by installing more-progressive spread looks that have allowed recent QBs such as Omar Haugabook, Levi Brown (who passed for 4254 yards in 2009), and last year’s revelation, Corey Robinson, to post some big numbers. As a redshirt frosh last fall looking to fill Brown’s rather large shoes, Robinson emerged from the pack and quickly established himself as the premier offensive force in the Belt, passing for 3726 yards and 28 TDs in one of the best debuts we recall since the Jimi Hendrix Experience album in 1967. To put the frosting in the cake for his breakout campaign, Robinson capped his season with a 387-yard, 4 TD pass effort in the bowl rout over Ohio. Second-year o.c. Kenny Edenfield, promoted from WR coach last year after predecessor and spread devotee Neal Brown moved to Texas Tech, promises more of the same this fall, although Edenfield has the somewhat daunting task of replacing his top three receivers from 2010, including homerun threat Jerrel Jernigan, who caught 84 passes last fall and also doubled as a lethal punt return threat. Usually we are reluctant to put too much stock in spring developments, but Sun Belt sources report that Robinson looked superb in March and April work as he appeared to gain instant rapport with his new-look set of pass catchers, led by rangy soph Jamel Johnson, who housed a long bomb in the spring game, and sr. Chip Reeves, who has displayed some homerun potential the past two seasons by averaging almost 17 yards on 52 receptions over 2009-10. Keep an eye, however, on post-spring academic developments that resulted in suspensions to both Johnson and Reeves, and their reinstatement is questionable for the fall. Belt sources suggest several raw but talented receiving options might be forced into action sooner than Blakeney was anticpating.

Regional sources say the real developments to watch on the attack end, especially in the early stages of the season, will be along the offensive line, which will have to replace at least three starters from last year’s veteran forward wall and perhaps four if jr. LG Kyle Wilborn cannot adequately recover from the shoulder surgery that kept him out of spring drills. The ground game, an effective diversion for last year’s 17th-ranked offense, loses top rusher DuJuan Harris, but jr. Shawn Southward (623 YR LY) has posted similar numbers over the past two seasons, and former juco Chris Anderson also adds depth after contributing almost 400 YR of his own in 2010.

Eight starters return from a defense that leaked a bit more than usual last fall, which regional sources somewhat anticipated after Blakeney graduated several performers from the previous year’s stop unit that made their ways into NFL camps last summer. Nonetheless, the breakdowns in pass coverage were unacceptable after Troy was torched through the air, ranking an uncharacteristic 100th vs. the pass. Which was all the more puzzling because Blakeney’s stop unit routinely put pressure on opposing QBs while recording 40 sacks, good enough to rank fifth in the country. Watch jr. DE Jonathon Massaquoi, who recorded a whopping 13 ½ sacks off the edge last season, and scouts say that juco DEs Marty Stadom and Xavian Evans could have a similar impact this fall in another speed-based Blakeney platoon. There is hope for improved pass coverage with plenty of experience in the secondary and three starters back in the fold, although an immediate upgrade could be delivered by another of Blakeney’s juco imports, hard-hitting SS Brynden Trawick, a onetime Michigan State recruit who already laid claim to a starting job in spring and who will make opposing QBs think twice about picking on undersized 5'8, 154-lb. LCB Jimmie Anderson. Senior MLB Xavier Lamb (91 tackles in 2010) could be one of the Belt’s best, and sources believe touted 210-lb. juco Deon Lee, a lethal pass rush specialist, could be used in a hybrid role. Another of Blakeney’s juco brigade, 315-lb. DT Tony Gillespie, is also expected to make contributions in the fall.

Pointspread-wise, the Trojans have usually offered good value for Blakeney, having recorded a 28-12 mark vs. the number their last 40 on the board entering last season, before Troy slumped to an uncharacteristic 5-8 spread mark (although it did win and cover impressively in its last three games). Blakeney’s teams have also provided especially good value over the years as an underdog, reflected in a 13-6 record as the “short” since 2006.

Summary....Troy serves as a good a reminder about Sun Belt football, in which even its better entries often take their lumps in non-league play but emerge in conference action. Troy has not always fit that mold after scoring a handful of noteworthy intersectional wins in recent years (Missouri and Oklahoma State have both fallen at Movie Gallery Stadium in recent memory), but tough tests out of the gate this September at Clemson and Arkansas could get the Trojans off on the wrong foot. We wouldn’t be too discouraged, however, as long as Robinson keeps winging the ball and the defense resurrects into a normal Blakeney stop unit. Troy likely goes bowling again this season and appears as good a bet as any to win another Sun Belt crown.

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