Editor’s Note: This is our second installment where David Helman takes a look at each opponent on LSU’s schedule for the upcoming season.
A Look Back
Under 18th-year head coach Larry Blakeney, the Trojans are rapidly establishing themselves as one of the top non-BCS conference teams in America. Blakeney led his team to back-to-back Sun Belt championships in 2006 and 2007, along with a resounding win over Rice in the 2006 New Orleans Bowl.
In 2007, Troy burst onto the scene with a 41-23 demolition of Oklahoma State on a nationally televised Thursday night game. With the ‘air raid’ offense of Troy offensive coordinator Tony Franklin and the abilities of senior quarterback Omar Haugabrook, the Trojans finished 16th in total offense with 5,434 yards in 2007. Haugabrook built on a wonderful performance against Oklahoma State by totaling 2,975 yards passing with a 61.3 completion percentage. In addition, he ran for 617 yards and 11 scores.
Aside from blowing past the Cowboys, the Trojans played Georgia in a close 34-44 road loss. Troy has also scared the fan bases of Florida State, Georgia Tech, and most notably LSU in recent seasons. Tiger fans will remember it took a late touchdown pass from Marcus Randall to put the Trojans away in 2004.
A Look Ahead
On the surface, things look grim for the 2008 Trojans. Troy must find a replacement for the departed Haugabrook, who was the driving force behind Tony Franklin’s spread attack. Speaking of Franklin, the Trojans must adjust to a new play caller as Auburn snatched up the old offensive coordinator during the 2007 bowl season.
At just 28, Neal Brown will take over as offensive coordinator in 2008. He worked as a receivers coach under Franklin for three years, in addition to playing under him at the University of Kentucky, so the transition may not be too rough.
As far as quarterback, sophomore Jamie Hampton won a hotly contested three-way battle in spring ball and will start the season as the number one. He was 6-for-18 for one touchdown and one interception in limited work last season, but also rushed for 161 yards.
If those two losses weren’t enough, the Trojans are missing 2007’s leading rusher and leading receiver. Departed senior Kenny Cattouse ran for 791 yards and seven touchdowns in ’07, while receiver Gary Banks tallied 698 yards and three scores.
The Trojans return just two of their starting five wide receivers this season. Senior Kennard Burton hauled in 18 balls for 219 yards and three touchdowns last year, while MyKeal Terry caught 21 for 186 yards and a touchdown. The other three spots in the starting five-wide will be filled by underclassmen.
Nathan Nolin will fill the gap left by Cattouse (for now). Originally a walk-on linebacker, Nolin earned a scholarship as a fullback in 2007 and won the starting job in spring practice. He does not have long to enjoy the accomplishment though; as soon as fall camp starts he will be competing with JUCO transfer Maurice Greer, who gained 778 yards and 14 touchdowns last season in junior college.
As green as the skill positions are, the 2008 Trojans will boast one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country. Any Troy player lining up behind Dion Small, Wesley Potter, Danny Franks, Tyler Clark, and Chris Jamison will have a shot at success. All five Trojan linemen started all 12 games last season, and Clark is the unit’s only underclassman.
Another factor in Troy’s recent success has been the outstanding play of its secondary. Behind the amazing performance of its cornerbacks, All-American and first round draft pick Leodis McKelvin and NCAA interceptions leader Elbert Mack, Troy finished 2007 with the 10th-ranked pass defense, allowing 183 passing yards per game and just 15 passing touchdowns in 12 games.
Unfortunately for Troy, both Mack and McKelvin are off to the NFL, and the 2008 defense is in similar shape to the offense.
The defensive line is the strongest of the defense’s three units. Junior defensive end Brandon Lang is finally back to 100 percent after a season-ending knee injury in the fourth game of ’07. A transfer from Hargrave Military Academy, Lang earned 26 tackles as a talented backup in 2006. It says a lot toward the line’s depth that Lang’s replacement last season, senior Kenny Mainor, became an all-star performer. Mainor started just eight games after Lang’s injury, but tallied 40 tackles and five sacks to make the 2nd-team All-Sun Belt squad. Junior Cameron Sheffield will man the other end spot after notching 27 tackles as a starter in 2007.
A pair of seniors will plug the inside for the Trojans’ line. Steve McLendon finally won the starting defensive tackle spot this past spring after two seasons in reserve. McLendon tallied 35 total tackles as a backup in 2006 and 2007. Nose tackle Dion Gales, who is a New Orleans native, is one of the defense’s best prospects. He started just six games last season, and tallied 30 tackles as a JUCO sophomore, a solid eight of which were for loss.
Overall, the depth and experience at linebacker will be a concern for Troy, but the unit is anchored by one of the best players in the entire country. Middle linebacker Boris Lee is easily the best pro prospect on the team, and is listed on the Lombardi Award’s 2008 watch list as a junior. Lee led the Trojans with 82 tackles in 2007, along with two interceptions, four pass breakups, three recovered fumbles, and a forced fumble. These accolades earned him first team All-Sun Belt as a sophomore.
There is, however, a bit of a drop off after Lee. David McDowell starts the season on the strong side. As a JUCO transfer in ’07, McDowell appeared in 10 games, starting three and tallying 15 tackles. Over on the weak side is junior Bear Woods, who should be considered for the 2008 All-Name team if nothing else. Woods is a former quarterback walk-on, who made the switch following the 2006 season. He appeared in all 12 games last season, notching 21 tackles mostly as a special teamer
One young player all Trojan fans will have their eyes on is redshirt freshman Xavier Lamb. The young linebacker is gaining serious consideration for a starting spot after his 21-tackle performance in Troy’s spring game. Even a slight slipup by one of the outside ‘backers could see the emergence of Lamb.
As mentioned above, it is in the secondary, specifically the cornerback position, where the 2008 Trojans are going to feel the most growing pains. After sending two top-notch corners to the NFL, Troy will be starting over with junior Chris Bowens and senior Trevor Ford.
Ford plans on replacing McKelvin at left cornerback after recovering from an injury in 2007. Originally a Florida State transfer, Ford made five tackles in seven appearances last year before being knocked out for the remainder of the year. Bowens will be replacing the interception machine Mack. He made just six tackles as a sophomore reserve before an ankle injury sidelined him in November. Bowens and Ford both won hard-fought battles in spring football, and will have the eyes of the entire fan base watching their progress.
Luckily for the pair, Troy returns plenty of experience in the secondary to help maintain the pass defense. Senior free safety Sherrod Martin finally gets a shot at a healthy season after taking a medical redshirt in 2006, and breaking his hand last season against Florida. Despite the broken hand, Martin piled up an impressive 52 tackles in just eight games. Senior Tavares Williams also returns after starting 11 games at strong safety in 2007. He had one pick and one forced fumble, and was fantastic in run support, totaling 60 tackles (49 solo).
Yet another senior, Terrence Moore will reprise his role as nickel back in 2008. As a full-time starter last year, Moore notched 64 tackles (51 solo) along with four pass breakups. His experience, along with his cover skills, could be the key to the success of the green corners.
Special teams is critical and for Troy the outlook is very blurry at best as the Trojans must replace just about everyone who played a key role last season. Both kicker Michael Taylor and punter Will Goggans will start after redshirting in 2007. Both players were all-state performers at the high school level, but have no college experience. Also, the departure of Leodis McKelvin may hurt special teams even more than the secondary. As a punt and kick returner McKelvin tied an NCAA record with eight career return touchdowns; he also set an NCAA record for return yardage with 3,817. As a senior, McKelvin averaged 17.4 yards per punt return.
When Troy Invades Tiger Stadium
Despite its growing reputation as a big boy head hunter, and despite the Trojans’ valiant effort in their last trip to Death Valley, I’m not buying it. Troy starts its season with a conference road game, and then they travel to Baton Rouge. In other words, the Trojans are breaking in a new coordinator, a new secondary, and new players at nearly every offensive skill position…and they don’t even get the advantage of a home opener against a cupcake to prepare them for the defending national champion. Not to mention, Troy’s best units (its offensive and defensive lines) may just be cancelled out by two LSU lines that are considered among the best in college football.
And just one more thing. Jamie Hampton is no Armanti Edwards, he isn’t even an Omar Haugabrook…yet. I’m sure the young quarterback will flourish in Troy’s system, but not in his second career start in one of America’s most imposing venues. After shaking off a pesky Appalachian State squad, this is where either Andrew Hatch or Jarrett Lee (or maybe Jordan Jefferson?) has to show a little extra something. With plenty of time to throw and a pair of young corners to pick on, someone needs to step up before the conference gauntlet begins. It seems reasonable that the Tigers’ heavy lifting will be done by halftime and this could get ugly if LSU is focused on the task at hand.