TROY, Ala. – Troy coach Larry Blakeney turned to an old friend to revive the Trojans' ailing defense.
He rehired former assistant Wayne Bolt as defensive coordinator after enduring two straight losing seasons for the first time in Blakeney's 22-year reign. The Trojans have won just eight games and gone 5-11 in the Sun Belt Conference in two seasons since winning a fifth consecutive league championship, and defense has been the biggest culprit.
Linebacker Mark Wilson said he thinks that's poised to change.
"From the previous years of defense, we're really motivated to get this thing turned around," Wilson said. "Our last championship was in 2010, and that's where we've been lacking, in defense. We have a great offense, but it's time for the defense to step up. It's time for us to play our part."
An offense led by all-time leading passer Corey Robinson never stopped producing and ranked eighth nationally in passing yards last season. Wide receiver Eric Thomas and left tackle Terrence Jones are preseason All-Sun Belt first-team picks.
The Trojans must replace tailback Shawn Southward, who led the team in rushing four straight seasons, and eight starters on both sides of the ball. The three top tacklers also are gone from a defense that allowed 443.6 yards a game last season and ranked 96th nationally.
Despite that, Blakeney said the overall roster represents an upgrade.
"We're bigger, we're faster and we're more talented probably than we've been in a while," he said. "Whether that computes into what we really want to do, and that's win games, is yet to be seen."
Five things to watch as Troy tries to be competitive again in the sun Belt:
1. CONTENDERS AGAIN? Only Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer has been at his current FBS school than Blakeney. But the Trojans have slipped since posting five straight eight-win seasons and going to four bowl games. Now, they're playing catch-up with programs like Louisiana-Monroe and Arkansas State.
2. NUTS & BOLT: Blakeney says Bolt and the Trojans have implemented a defensive scheme that is better able to adapt to the variety of systems and no-huddle offenses they'll face. Troy managed a modest 13 sacks and league-low six interceptions last season. Bolt was a Blakeney assistant from 1991-2002, moving from offensive line to defensive coordinator in mid-tenure. The defensive line figures to be a strength, along with safeties Rico Pickett and Camren Hudson.
3. REPLACING SOUTHWARD: Southward played a key role on the offense all four seasons, but departed after his best season: 1,012 yards, 10 touchdowns. The job appears to be up for grabs. The top returning running back, Khary Franklin, had only three carries for 23 yards. Blakeney and offensive coordinator Kenny Edenfield have praised 5-foot-8, 160 pound redshirt freshman Michael Lindsey and freshman Jordan Chunn, who's considerably bigger at 6-foot, 226 pounds.
4. DEON'S ROLE: Backup quarterback Deon Anthony was used in red zone (and other) situations last season primarily because of his running ability. He also set the school record for single-season completion percentage while finishing second on the team with 390 rushing yards. Bone spurs in his right, throwing elbow led coaches to open preseason camp working him at receiver. Edenfield said Anthony and Robinson will both play and sometimes be on the field at the same time. Robinson says he doesn't mind sharing time and figures defenses have to prepare for two very different offenses.
5. NEW BLOCKERS: Only one full-time starter returns on the offensive line, and Jones is moving from right tackle to left tackle. Guard Jimmie Arnold started four games during an injury-shortened season.
Predicted finish in the Sun Belt: Fifth.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/
Follow John Zenor on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jzenor