by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Now that the Dallas TV show (Wednesday nights on TNT, in case you're interested) has been resurrected, maybe the Troy football team can borrow a storyline from the past to promote the 2012 season.

How about Victoria Principal pretending that last season never really happened for the Trojans, and all just a bad dream?

It was a bad dream for Troy last fall, but, unfortunately, it really did happen. After winning or sharing five straight Sun Belt crowns, and four consecutive bowl appearances, the Trojans dropped off the radar in 2011, all of the way down to a 3-9 record. Which has some regional observers wondering if longtime HC Larry Blakeney (entering this 23rd year on the job) might be losing his touch.

Although coaches have been known to lose their enthusiasm as their careers wind down, we rarely see a top coach “get old overnight” as have many boxers. There aren’t many football coaching analogies to an old Joe Louis getting KO’d and knocked through the ropes by Rocky Marciano, or Sugar Ray Robinson ending his career as a journeyman. A lot of old boxers simply can’t fight anymore, and many coaches also have their own sell-by date, but good coaches rarely forget how to win.

Which is why we suspect last fall was a one-off at Troy. Especially since regional sources indicate the veteran mentor Blakeney (after whom the Trojans’ home field is named) has lost none of his gusto for the game.

What should disturb most Troy fans, however, was the manner in which the team unraveled last season. Blakeney’s teams usually play solid defense, with the stop unit annually ranked among the best in the Sun Belt. But the school that had recently sent the likes of DBs Sherrod Martin & Leodis McKelvin, and D-linemen Osi Umenyiora and DeMarcus Ware, to the NFL suddenly couldn’t stop the wind last fall, collapsing to triple-digit national rankings in all meaningful defensive stat categories, including a humiliating 113th in total defense (465 ypg) and 101st in scoring defense (33.7 ppg).

Spring was back-to-basics time for the Trojans, enduring more of a boot camp conducted by Blakeney. Sun Belt sources say it was the most-physical offseason camp in the conference as Blakeney pushed the team through brutal session after session.

Much like Blakeney, longtime coordinator Jeremy Rowell couldn’t have forgotten overnight how to scheme defensively, either. Which is another reason why Belt observers suspect that 2011 is unlikely to be repeated anytime in southeast Alabama.

Nonetheless, Rowell, in consort with Blakeney, decided to make some alterations on the stop end after last year’s platoon was so torched. Six starters are back in the fold, but the Trojans will be making some schematic adjustments, beginning with a switch to 3-4 looks this fall, hopefully to get more speed on to the field.

The alignment switch introduces a “bandit,” or hybrid DE/LB, into the mix, a role which seems to be perfectly suited for punishing 5'11, 248-lb. blaster Jacoby Thomas (right), who hits like a ton of bricks but is also surprisingly nimble and can drop back into pass coverage.

Although only five starters return to the platoon, Belt sources believe Rowell could make the new looks work, especially with so many juco reinforcements having arrived to make contributions. Many of those JC transfers will man the defensive line, including boulder-like 6'4, 305-lb. DT Xavier Melton. Fellow jucos Braylon Williams and Derrick Upshaw also bring needed bulk to the DL, which can hopefully help tie up blockers and allow an athletic group of linebackers to roam free and cause havoc. Senior DE Tony Davis, at 249 pounds, is a speed rusher who should also come in handy with Rowell’s altered schemes, and will need to generate a pass rush to compensate for the graduation of DE Jonathan Massaquoi, a sackmeister who departed for the NFL Draft (where he was picked by the Falcons) with a year of eligibility to go.

What would really help the Trojans is if they can get a hardship waiver for Arkansas transfer DT Lonnie Gosha, a former 4-star prep who left Fayetteville a year ago. Gosha’s eligibility remains up in the air, but he could obviously emerge as a difference-maker in the Sun Belt if he can get onto the field.

In the mold of past Troy defensive playmakers, sr. ILB Brannon Bryan is one of the projected senior starters in the middle of the 3-4. Senior Kanorris Davis, who missed spring drills with foot problems, is expected to be ready in the fall. Rowell was also impressed by some new faces in spring, especially RS frosh Tyler Roberts, who made plays all over the field and will press Jacoby Thomas for playing time at the bandit, and soph Dimitri Miles, a former walk-on who shined in limited opportunities last fall. Though slowed by injury in spring, Miles could emerge in the new “will” (nickel) role that is part LB, part DB...another new twist in the Trojan defense.

There are ongoing concerns, however, in the secondary, especially after it was toasted by the offense in spring scrimmaging. Another one of the JC additions, CB Zach Miller, could make an immediate splash and start on one of the corners opposite sr. Bryan Willis. Sr. FS Brynden Trawick (left vs. FIU last October; 6'2, 223 lbs.) is a big hitter, but Blakeney and Rowell would rather someone else lead the team in tackles as Trawick did (with 103) a year ago.

If there is one notable change from earlier Blakeney Troy additions, it has been the embracement of the spread offense that once looked as out of place in these parts of Alabama as a Boston accent. But beginning with the enlistment of noted spread guru Tony Franklin as his offensive coordinator a few years back, Blakeney’s Trojans have been whipping the ball around the yard like Texas Tech.

This sure isn’t the sort of offense that Shug Jordan’s Auburn ran when Blakeney was a QB on the Plains in the mid ‘60s.

Unfortunately, they’ve also forgotten how to run the ball at Troy, something Blakeney and o.c. Kenny Edenfield addressed in spring work after the Trojans placed a woeful 117th (88.7 ypg) rushing in 2011, also contributing to horrid red-zone production in which Troy ranked a miserable 119th (ahead of only lowly New Mexico) in the land.

Still, unless Marcus Lattimore transfers in from South Carolina, the offense will revolve around jr. QB Corey Robinson (right), who seems like he has been on campus since the days Troy competed at the old I-AA level. Instead, he’s only a junior and on course to smash all Troy passing records after tossing for 7137 yards and 49 TDs over the past two seasons. Unfortunately, he’s also been prone to interceptions, victimized by 30 over the past two campaigns, and his 15 picks a year ago contributed heavily to the Trojans’ poor -12 TO margin, placing them once again in undesirable triple-digit territory (114th) in a stat category where no team wants to rank so low.

Expect Robinson to post more big numbers this fall, especially since wideouts Jamel Johnson (left, in 2010 action vs. FIU) and Chip Reeves, who were expected to be two preferred targets a year ago before both were ruled academically ineligible, are now back in the fold. Eric Thomas, last year’s top receiver with 67 catches (good for nine TDs), should remain Robinson’s go-to target. Soph speedball Chandler Worthy, all 159 pounds of him, flashed homerun potential as a frosh when gaining better than 17 yards per catch on his 22 receptions.

In other words, Robinson is not going to lack for receiving targets.

Now, what about that running game? Four experienced seniors, including last year’s leading rusher Shawn Southward (right; 556 YR in 2011), are back in the mix, but Belt sources say to keep an eye on jr. Khary Franklin, a 5'8, 168-lb. waterbug who moved to RB from WR in spring, and RS frosh Daron White, a Jacksonville product who was literally dancing away from defenders during spring.

Meanwhile, the offensive line, much-maligned a year ago, enjoyed a relatively healthy spring, which was good news after injuries mostly decimated the forward wall a year ago. Those misfortunes, however, helped develop added depth which should manifest at some point this fall. Three listed starters are back in the mix from a year ago, with another of Blakeney’s juco haul, Hutchinson (KS) LT Chris Hawkins, likely to step into the lineup.

Spread-wise, Troy began to slip before last season, as the Trojans had ceased to become a well-kept secret before a year ago. Which partially explains the 8-17 mark vs. the number the past two seasons.

Meanwhile, unlike a year ago, when Troy opened tough at Clemson and Arkansas, Blakeney gets UAB (beaten the last two years by the Trojans) and new Blazer HC Garrick McGee in the opener before an early potential Belt showdown vs. Louisiana the next week. Mississippi State will then become the first SEC team ever to play at Troy’s Veterans Memorial Stadium, still looking for new naming rights after video rental chain Movie Gallery, which affixed its name to the stadium for nearly a decade, went into bankruptcy and ceased operations.

Sort of like the Trojans’ running game last season.

Summary...Troy’s downturn was one of the big storylines in the Sun Belt in 2011. But most regional observers suggest a quick recovery could be in the cards, especially with QB Corey Robinson likely to be winging the ball all over the lot and a squadron of established receivers ready to distort enemy secondaries. A healthier OL should also mean an improved infantry, which is a necessity for Troy to get back into the Belt title picture. Assuming the offense hits on all cylinders (as most regional insiders expect), it will be up to the “D” to play more like Blakeney’s past, punishing platoons than last year’s overrun stop unit; the switch to the 3-4 looks a worthwhile gamble. All key Sun Belt showdowns (Louisiana, Western Kentucky, Florida International, and Arkansas State) are also at home this fall.

They’re not used to pussyfootin’ around at that school on George Wallace Drive (do you wonder if one of the ESPN networks will ever bring that up when it televises a Troy game?), so expect Troy to get back into the Sun Belt race, and maybe even the bowl mix, once again this fall.


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