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Trojans must overcome schedule, youth

The Troy Trojans aren’t aiming to change everything about a spread offense that has been so productive the past two seasons.

Just the quarterback, the coordinator, the running backs and the receivers.

Coach Larry Blakeney 136-68-1 school (18th year).

Last year 8-4, 6-2 Sun Belt (T-first).

Offense As if being a 28-year-old coordinator isn’t hard enough, Neal Brown must replace most of his key skill players including two-time Sun Belt offensive player of the year QB Omar Haugabook, the top two rushers or three leading receivers. The Trojans will keep running the spread offense that has been so successful the past two seasons. The entire starting offensive line returns.

Defense Gone are star corners Leodis McKelvin and Elbert Mack. The top three tacklers return, though, including LB Boris Lee. DEs Kenny Mainor and Brandon Lang are back on the line. Transfers will likely have to fill gaping holes at cornerback, including Trevor Ford from Florida State.

Special teams P/PK Greg Whibbs is gone. Redshirt freshmen Will Goggans and Michael Taylor take over those duties.

Key losses QB Omar Haugabook, DB Leodis McKelvin, WR Gary Banks, RB Kenny Cattouse, DB Elbert Mack, P/PK Greg Whibbs.

Opener Aug. 28 at Middle Tennessee.

Pivotal game Oct. 7 at Florida Atlantic.

Outlook The Trojans were picked second in the league behind Florida Atlantic after at least sharing the title the past two seasons. They might have to get through a brutal early schedule without significant injury problems to contend. Troy’s first five games include visits to LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State and seven of first nine are on the road. A number of transfers and freshmen could be needed to contribute early. The Trojans do close with three home games.

And the results? The Trojans are hoping those won’t change too much despite the loss of virtually every key skill player and coordinator Tony Franklin .

The youth movement extends to the sidelines with 28-year-old Neal Brown becoming the youngest coordinator in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

“The offense is one that will maintain a level of proficiency at being a spread team and throwing the football and doing the things it takes to win games,” Trojans coach Larry Blakeney said. “We’re going to attempt to be the same as we’ve been, and hopefully we’ll be as good.”

The competition won’t make it easy. Nor will the loss of all those offensive players or cornerback Leodis McKelvin, a first-round NFL draft pick.

Troy, which finished 8-4 last season, opens at Sun Belt Conference rival Middle Tennessee. Then the Trojans visit Bowl Championship Series national championship game participants LSU and Ohio State in a three-week span.

It doesn’t give sophomore quarterback Jamie Hampton a chance to ease into his new role. He replaces two-time Sun Belt Conference offensive player of the year Omar Haugabook, who passed for 2,975 yards and ran for 631 last season.

Hampton did get some experience that might help him in Baton Rouge, La., and Columbus, Ohio. His lone start came at Georgia, and he had a 56-yard run at Arkansas.

Hampton, who gained some 15 pounds during the offseason, beat out Richmond transfer Levi Brown and sophomore Tanner Jones in the spring.

“The main thing with Hampton is his ability to run with the football more effectively,” Blakeney said. “All of them are quality guys and leaders and all of them can throw the football, which is a necessity in our offense. It doesn’t matter who starts, it’ll be a young guy as far as Troy’s standards.

“We’ve got to make sure we don’t make too many mistakes at quarterback, especially early.”

Hampton and Brown will be operating an offense that must replace its top two rushers – including Haugabook – and three leading receivers. Not to mention Franklin, who left to run Auburn’s offense. Brown played under Franklin at Kentucky for three seasons.

Sophomore DuJuan Harris takes over at running back after gaining 372 yards backing up Kenny Cattouse last season. Junior college transfer Maurice Greer, a onetime Colorado signee, also enters the mix. He was Colorado’s Mr. Football as a high school senior.

Sophomore receiver Jerrel Jernigan had a solid debut season. However, 15 players return who caught passes last season and 10 of them scored touchdowns.

Blakeney also signed top receiver prospect Josh Jarboe, who signed with Oklahoma but was kicked off the team after appearing in a profanity-laced video. Troy officials aren’t sure yet if the freshman will be eligible this season because of NCAA transfer rules.

The best news for the Trojans offense is that all five starters return on the line, led by tackles Dion Small and Chris Jamison and center Danny Franks.

The defensive secondary has huge voids to fill at cornerback. McKelvin was drafted with the 11th pick by the Buffalo Bills, and also was one of the nation’s top return men. Elbert Mack led the nation with eight interceptions.

Florida State transfer Trevor Ford is a starting candidate at one corner spot and newcomers include junior college transfers Kedric Manning and Jorrick Calvin.

“Hopefully somebody will surprise us, but that’s a definite point of concern,” Blakeney said. “It’s one of those positions that when they foul up everybody knows it. We’ve got to be able to take care of that part of the field as a pass defender and as a run support guy in some cases.”

The Trojans do return the top three tacklers in linebacker Boris Lee and safeties Terence Moore and Tavares Williams. End Kenny Mainor had five sacks in 10 games last season and Brandon Lang returns after missing most of last season with an injury.

Dion Gales is among the returnees in the middle of the defensive line.

The Trojans must replace punter/placekicker Greg Whibbs, along with McKelvin’s return threat.

Despite all the new personnel, Troy’s biggest challenge might be an unforgiving schedule. The Trojans play seven of their first nine games on the road, including LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State. They follow that up with a visit to defending league champion Florida Atlantic.

“If we can still be in the race after that first part of the schedule, then we may have a chance,” Blakeney said.