2022 G5 Preview: Troy Timed Its Coaching Change Perfectly
Chip Lindsey was not the answer. Troy didn't mess around pretending he was.
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There’s something to be said for cutting your losses and moving on.
Especially in college football, which already had a short fuse for ending coaching tenures and has kicked that into overdrive in recent seasons with the advent of the early signing period and the transfer portal, both of which allow for shocking rebuilds or devastating collapses in roughly three months depending on the staff at the helm of a program.
Even in a system that allows for quick rises and swift falls, there’s never been a more volatile time in college football. That’s not good or bad. It just… is. There’s no use in arguing with it or fighting against it, just as there’s no reason for standing on the table to support it. You’re rooting against the wind or cheering the rain. It’s a waste of time.
Yet, as the pressure cooker ramps up, so too do arguments on either side of the discourse about the patience – or lack thereof – afforded to head coaches and their staffs. It varies in detail (how long is too long for a coach to prove himself; how much loss is acceptable; what is the realistic goal for this team structurally in the long term; how close can a coach get to reaching it) by the program involved – as does everything – but the core conceit of the argument is the same everywhere.
Some are ready to make a snap judgment within just a year or two if they see obvious flaws in the beliefs or actions of a coach; others have swung hard against that, citing tenures of coaches who broke through when extended enough patience to establish the foundation they needed. For every Ron Prince, there’s a Bill Snyder (well, not every Ron Prince. More tenures fail than succeed).
I’m sympathetic to that. College football coaches aren’t spending 24 hours a day grinding the tape and recruiting like they want you to think, but it is a tremendously high-pressure and challenging job, and sometimes a coach just needs some time to adjust and learn on the job before establishing his program.
There are extenuating circumstances galore and every firing choice requires a whole lot of contextualizing before making the final call. Generally speaking, three years is probably the earliest a coach should face a hot seat, and they should probably still get a fourth season in most cases to showcase a team primarily built around their recruits.
And then there are tenures like Chip Lindsey’s at Troy. These are the firings that require a different kind of context. Unsympathetic, unfeeling context. Lindsey was a good-ole-boy hire by athletic director Jeremy McClain – who departed from Troy three months later for Southern Miss (great call, man, you nailed it) – who brought no real plan or selling point with him. He had just been fired from Auburn after making Gus Malzahn’s offense significantly dumber and was going to be Les Miles’ OC at Kansas before he got the call from Troy. His tenure was very obviously doomed from the start, partially because he’s a dogshit coach and partially because Troy hired him at literally the worst possible time.
As the Trojans were fucking around with Lindsey, the rest of the Sun Belt was exploding in coaching talent. Billy Napier built a killer at Louisiana, Coastal Carolina identified its niche with Jamey Chadwell and Appalachian State continued its dominance.
After years of smart, detailed program building under Neal Brown, Troy stared down an opportunity to leap Appalachian State as the proverbial powerhouse in the East and hired the guy who systematically destroyed Jarrett Stidham’s brain because he wanted to build an all-screen offense. If we’re being honest, Troy should have fired this loser after one year. It should have fired him as soon as Brent Jones took over as the new athletic director in June of 2019.
Now, three years later, Troy has done the right thing. It has looked around at a rapidly expanding league, recognized its opportunity at reclaiming the throne as it shifts into the entirely unsettled post-Napier West division, and made the hire that should have been made in 2019. After a quick search, Jones tabbed Jon Sumrall for the head coaching post. He inherits a team that, with strong coaching, can be an immediate contender in that new West – and he has about a decade of experience that suggests he can provide exactly that.
Sumrall, 39, comes to Troy by way of Kentucky, his alma mater. He coached inside linebackers and helped to coordinate the defense with Brad White in 2021 after two seasons as just the ILB coach. He was at Ole Miss in a similar role in 2018.
His ties here come from 2015-17, when he worked under Brown in just about every defensive coaching role, serving eventually as assistant head coach, linebackers coach, and special teams coordinator for some of the best teams in program history, producing elite defenses in 2016 and 2017. He was up for the job last time and by all indications finished second to Lindsey.
Jones indicated in a video of Sumrall being extended the head coaching position offer that the former UK linebacker had interviewed with Troy at least four times. The hiring of Lindsey felt lazy and mismatched. This one feels precise and in tune with what Troy needs right now.
There’s no way to accurately grade or predict a coaching hire before he fields a team, but Sumrall certainly cuts the profile of a coach who can direct this program in a critical time. He’s spent lots of time around program builders and seems to fashion himself in that same mold, hiring coordinators to call plays and leaving the details to his position coaches, while taking a perch as the organization manager as much as he is a football coach. It seems like he’s more interested in structure than he is in the micro. That’s not exactly common among young coaches, and it’s a good trait to have when taking over a down program.
“Troy’s not going to beat Troy,” Sumrall said at his introductory press conference. “This game’s already hard enough to beat the other team. We’re not going to beat ourselves. We’re going to play with an edge. We’re not going to get stupid penalties, but we’re going to play hard. I’m a believer in fundamentals.
“Scheme matters, but I don’t care what scheme you’ve got, if you are great at fundamentals, you can implement any scheme. We’re going to play fast. We’re going to play with the effort and energy that after we play our opponents, I want them to feel like, ‘Man, what did we just run into? That was a buzzsaw.’ ”
And with the roster that he’s inheriting from Lindsey, there should be room for immediate proof of concept, if not outright contention. Louisiana is the favorite in the West until proven otherwise, and South Alabama looks to be primed for a second-year jump under Kane Wommack, but Arkansas State and Southern Miss are rebuilding, Texas State is a year away from firing its coach and ULM has died.
It would take some doing with App State (on the road) and Marshall in the cross-division and road trips to Louisiana and South Alabama – plus, non-con games against Army, Ole Miss, and Western Kentucky could dent the final record – but Sumrall has nine starters back on each side of the ball to work with, starting with one of the Sun Belt’s more encouraging quarterbacks in Gunnar Watson.
This is going to be a big year for Watson.
At 6-3, with a legitimately good arm, he could draw professional interest with a good season this year, but if he’s going to do that he probably needs to do it now. Despite being just a junior, he signed back in the class of 2018 and will be 23 by the time the 2023 draft rolls around. He was a reserve in his first two seasons, a very capable starter in 2020, and then a part-time starter in 2021, taking over for Taylor Powell in early October and closing out the season. Each of the last two seasons have been, we’ll say, encouraging.
He completed 70.1 percent of his passes for 2,141 yards, 17 TDs, and six interceptions in 2020, then dipped to 61.4 percent, 1,613 yards, eight TDs, and four INTs in 2021.
He’s a decent athlete, he throws a nice deep ball and he has top slot man Tez Johnson and potential deep threat Deshon Stoudemire back in starting roles, with UAB transfer RaJae Johnson here to round out the starting group and 6-3 Demontrez Brown and slot backup Jabre Barber also in the mix. He’s rid of the Lindsey offense, which required him to throw a preposterous amount of screens and offered no room to showcase his ability. I don’t love new OC Joe Craddock, an alum of the Chad Morris tenures at SMU and Arkansas, but he’s going to be an improvement and he has an affinity for throwing the ball down the field.
That’s a lot to be working in a quarterback’s favor. Watson has the talent to excel within these circumstances and could be one of the best passers in the Sun Belt if a few things break the right way. His development into that kind of role is going to set the ceiling for the Trojans.
He should have a decent rushing attack to rely on too. Starter Kimani Vidal returns and will assume that role again this year. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry in 2021 and will run behind four returning starters on the interior, with center Dylan Bradshaw as the only departure. It wasn’t a superlative group a season ago, but it’s firmly in the better half of Sun Belt offensive lines and should benefit from a better-designed offense. Troy’s offense isn’t likely to be the leading force on this team, but there’s no reason to think it can’t be one of the better units in the league.
The specialty of this group is Sumrall’s calling card, the defense. It was the strength of last season’s team and returns every starter outside of run-stuffing end John Hines Jr. and deep safety Kyle Nixon. Shiel Wood has been tasked with coordinating this veteran bunch after helping to build out a phenomenal defense at Army in 2020 and 2021.
He subscribes roughly to the same ideology as his new head coach. I’d expect to see a dynamic 4-2-5, using a hybrid pass rusher (the name for it here is BANDIT) and a third safety as adjustable players to adapt to offensive looks. They’re going to rely on disguised pressure, very strong edge rushers, and man coverage cornerbacks to limit the pass and entrust run defense to the tackles, two linebackers, and a pair of flexible safeties with one designated as the true free safety, dedicated largely to the passing game.
This personnel already makes a ton of sense for that, because that’s roughly what former DC Brandon Hall preached.
Up front, Richard Jibunor and Javon Solomon and pitch-perfect bandits. They split time as the pass-rushing end last season and though both could start, there’s no real reason to mess with a good thing. Rotating them keeps both players fresh, and Hines has an obvious replacement in Antonio Showers – who played every game and is a great run-stuffer – at the other end spot. Jibunor was technically the starter last season but Solomon is the better of the two and may deserve a slight edge in snaps.
Elgin Griffin is departing after starting five games at tackle next season, but he was the lesser of the two starting tackles, and his counterpart, Will Choloh, is back. Luis Medina started five games of his own and will take over for Griffin. Choloh is best when he’s providing interior pressure and Medina, a run-stuffing specialist, will allow for just that. Shakel Brown, who checks in at 6-4, 337 pounds and Buddha Jones will contribute as well after cracking into the lineup down the stretch last season as spot players. This line is without truly top-end talent save for the bandit pairing, but it’s a very, very good group.
The linebacker room is tremendously strong. Jayden McDonald – a starter of eight games before an injury ended his season – and KJ Robertson, who played all season and filled in as a starter at the end are both back and will likely rotate, because Carlton Martial is back in the other linebacker role, and Sumrall is far too good a linebackers coach to take him off the field. There’s not a better linebacker in the Sun Belt, and there’s only a handful of linebackers – if that – in the entire nation who inspire more confidence entering this season than the 5-9, 210-pound senior responsible for 443 tackles in his last four seasons at Troy.
He’s perfectly fine as a pass rusher and coverage man, but his calling card is in run defense. This is the kind of player to build an entire defense around. He tracks the ball brilliantly, has no issue working sideline-to-sideline through traffic and can be relied on for double-digit stops and at least one TFL in just about every game he plays. McDonald likely gets the start next to him as more of a coverage specialist, but the linebacker to know here is wearing No. 2. He is every bit worth the price of admission.
The secondary will need to replace Nixon, who was good but not peerless, and has four returning starters to put around the new man in that spot. Elsewhere at safety, Dell Pettus returns as the proto-strong safety – though he offers more versatility and spends less time in the box than a traditional strong safety – and TJ Harris is a tremendous nickel/slot/box/whatever-is-needed safety. He played almost every single position on this defense last season and can do some really good work in essentially any role, though he’s at his best as a slot coverage guy.
At cornerback, there’s another bonafide star to work with in Reddy Steward, a two-year starter who shifted from a capable player into a lockdown cornerback in 2021. He faced 28 targets and allowed eight receptions for 81 yards, snaring one interception without allowing a touchdown. Quarterback rating – 24.7. That’s good.
Elijah Culp returns opposite him, and though he wasn’t able to translate an elite 2020 season at Austin Peay into a top performance at Troy last year, he’s certainly talented and should benefit from a year of experience at the FBS level. He won’t be Steward, but there’s not going to be a starting cornerback to pick on here, and all three of the next CBs up last season are returning, including Zion Williams, who was outstanding in coverage. With this pass-rushing unit, that’s extremely dangerous.
The vacant safety spot will likely be battled for through the spring and even into the fall, but I’d bet right now on Markeis Colvin to win it. He's a very good tackler and played more snaps in the deep safety role than anywhere else last season, though not by a whole lot.
Craig Slocum will have something to say about that, but I see him more as the rotational piece behind Pettus than I do a starting FS. It’s the same story with Darrell Starling in the slot. Youngster Carloss Crawford could be an intriguing option deep, though he’s probably not ready for a starting role and could instead round out a two-deep in the secondary that, if we’re being honest, is just about flawless. There’s not a better back five in the Sun Belt, and I’d be pretty surprised if there’s a better defense.
The schedule, as mentioned, might limit how much improvement Sumrall could put on the books for year one. That non-conference slate is just brutal, and it’s hard to get a tougher cross-divisional draw in this league than Appalachian State and Marshall, especially with Lousiana and South Alabama on the road within the West. That’s awful, awful luck.
But with what should be a phenomenal defense and a very exciting quarterback, expectations can still be pretty high here. Troy isn’t beating Ole Miss, and it probably won’t knock off Appalachian State on the road. Everyone else on this schedule can be beaten. That’s not to say the Trojans will beat them.
With this roster, though? Directed by competent coaching? It’s not out of the question.