Early look at Troy

Troy normally isn't predicted to win the Sun Belt Conference by league coaches, but rest assured, the Trojans are still the team with the biggest targets on their back.

Troy will go for its sixth straight league title, shared or outright, this fall. Only twice, in 2007 and 2009, have the Trojans been picked to win the conference. This year, they are second behind Florida International, who shared the league crown with Troy last year and won the head-to-head.

That's just fine with Troy coaches and players, who welcome the extra motivation but know where they stand among others.

"I hope we can earn the respect through our play, not from a preseason prognostication," Troy head coach Larry Blakeney said. "We've got a target on our backs just about every week in the conference. We'll have that until we prove we're not worthy."

Blakeney will have plenty of weapons at his disposal offensively, led by Sun Belt Freshman of the Year Corey Robinson. The New Orleans Bowl MVP threw for 3,726 yards, 28 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. The last number is one coaches want him to cut back on.

"Corey is a guy that doesn't usually make the same mistake twice," Blakeney said at SEC Media days.

Running back Shawn Southward returns as a junior after leading Troy with 623 yards last season. Troy lost four starting receivers, including record-setting Jerrel Jernigan, and had two more projected starters go down to academic ineligibility after the spring. All-conference pick James Brown anchors the offensive line at left tackle.

The Trojans will be looking to make a big move defensively after finishing 89th in total defense. That number improved 20 spots over the final three games of the season, though, as Troy won all three to finish 8-5.

Troy made some changes defensively after the 52-35 loss to FIU. The Trojans lost 69-24 at South Carolina the following week, but didn't flinch after that.

"I'm not taking anything away from FIU, but we were in a state of disarray on defense," Blakeney said. "We weren't chemically together. We weren't where we needed to be.

"We came together as a defense. You've got to play certainly together. If you've got one guy that hasn't got it on his mind that week, you've got a problem, and we had some of those type problems against FIU."

Troy returns eight starters on defense, including star defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi, a junior who was picked as the preseason Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year.

Linebackers Xavier Lamb and Brannon Bryan and cornerback Jimmie Anderson are all-league candidates, and junior college transfer safety Brynden Trawick is expected to be a major player.

* Troy must replace three starters on the offensive line. Senior Zach Swindall (center), junior Jacob Creech (right guard) and redshirt freshman Terrance Jones (right tackle) are poised to claim those roles.

* Three key players will return from major season-ending injuries a season ago. Creech started three games at left guard before having shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum. Senior Barry Valcin was supposed to start at safety, but suffered a dislocated ankle two days before the season opener. Senior Jamie Hampton, the team's backup quarterback, broke his leg in the fifth game.

* Troy is solid in the kicking game with Will Goggans, who will start his fourth season as the punter; Michael Taylor, who has handled kickoffs since he was a freshman and field goals since his sophomore year; and third-year starter Wes Henry at long snapper. The Trojans need to find a kick and punt returner to replace Jernigan, and the top candidates are newcomers Corey Johnson and Justin Albert.

SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Troy's two money games are the first two of the season, though thankfully a bye week comes between the season opener at Clemson (Sept. 3) and the second game at Arkansas (Sept. 17). Troy starts Sun Belt play with a bang as the Trojans host rival Middle Tennessee on Sept. 24.

KEYS TO SUCCESS: Troy has handled the pressure of having the targets on the backs for several years. If the defense can build off last year's play at the end of the year and stay healthy, unlike last year, a nine or 10-win season is well within reach.

AREA OF CONCERN: Troy has very little experience at wide receiver. The top returning wideout, senior Brett Moncrief, is recovering from foot surgery. Troy will need sophomore Eric Thomas and junior college transfer Corey Johnson, among others, to step up as playmakers.

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