Football: the best is yet to come

(CONTRIBUTED/ Scott Watkins)
(CONTRIBUTED/ Scott Watkins)
Scott Watkins discusses the upcoming football season.
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Scott Watkins

Staff Writer

A massive new brick has been laid in Troy, but the wall isn’t quite rebuilt for Neal Brown’s Trojan football team.

After finishing the 2015 season with a 4-8 record, Brown orchestrated a six-win improvement in 2016 that ties for the country’s top turnaround.

Numerous school and conference records were set, including the Sun Belt’s first-ever national ranking. Yet, the Trojans came up one game short of their goal: a conference championship.

“Our motto’s been ‘Rebuild the Wall.’ Anytime we talk about ‘Rebuild the Wall,’ I want people to understand the wall is still not built,” Brown said in an interview with Dothan Eagle reporter Jeremy Wise. “We’ve got a lot of foundation pieces here, but it’s still not built.”

The best is yet to come for the football program, and the proof is in the 2016 season.

Following the 2015 season, the Trojans lost 70 percent of their offensive production and were not returning a single interception from the defensive backfield.

Despite this, Troy finished second in the conference in total offense in 2016, just four yards short of Appalachian State.

Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning’s pro-style defense snagged a Sun Belt leading 22 interceptions, more than tripling 2015’s total, and forced a conference-high 30 turnovers.

The best part? Every skill position player is returning on offense for the 2017 season. With a third year to develop under Brown, quarterback Brandon Silvers will have nothing but familiar faces to give the ball to next season.

The biggest loss for the Trojans is the graduation of defensive end Rashad Dillard, the 2016 Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year. Dillard played Koenning’s bandit position, a combination of outside linebacker and defensive end that serves as the primary edge rusher.

Troy has the personnel to replace Dillard, starting with linebacker Sam Lebbie. Lebbie served as the backup Bandit and sometimes lined up at defensive end as the opposite edge rusher of Dillard. Lebbie had three sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss in 2016.

A notable newcomer who could push Lebbie is Rasool Clemons. Clemons is a three-star defensive end from East Mississippi Community College who signed his letter of intent in December. The highest-rated Troy recruit since 2009, Clemons had offers from Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Texas A&M among others. He has all the size and speed Koenning loves to utilize in his defense.

The football program has made strides off the field as well, joining the facilities arms race. Troy has begun construction on a new north end zone facility that will enclose Veterans Memorial Stadium and is set to be finished in 2018, just in time for Troy’s home opener against Boise State on Sept. 1.

The upgrades will aim to heighten attendance and, with the stadium now bowled in, raise the field-level noise during games. Perhaps most importantly, the new facility will help attract more recruits in an increasingly competitive Sun Belt landscape.

Troy will have a chance to compete on a national level with prominent programs on the schedule for the upcoming seasons.

In 2017, Troy will start its season at Boise State before making a trip to Baton Rouge to take on LSU four weeks later.

In 2018, Troy will play host to Boise State and travel to Lincoln, Nebraska, to take on the Cornhuskers. As of now, 2019 will feature a matchup with the Missouri Tigers of the SEC. Each game will be a measuring stick for the growth of the football program.

Brown, with two guaranteed years left on his contract, is set to receive an extension, according to a report from the Dothan Eagle. With Brown potentially locked down for the future, all the pieces are falling in place for a return to Sun Belt prominence.

Brick by brick, player by player, the wall is rising around Troy with no Trojan Horse in sight.