By Josh Brown
Troy Daily News
TROY — Troy head football coach Dan Gress isn’t the only puzzle piece fitting into a new place this season.
And there’s plenty of new pieces looking to find a place to fit in, as well.
While Gress used summer camp to get his Troy players accustomed to his style of coaching and the expectations he and his staff have for the players, the Trojans themselves did their best to use the opportunity to impress those coaches as the team enters the 2019 season looking to fill a host of holes in key spots on both side of the football after the graduation of a large and talented senior class in the offseason.
• Returning Leader
Helping to ease the burden of so many skill-position losses is the return of starting quarterback Brayden Siler.
Last year as a junior, Siler finished with 1,583 passing yards, going 113 for 175 with 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, as well as adding 138 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 64 carries.
Entering this year, Siler is one of only a handful of starters returning — and Gress is thankful that it’s in such a key position.
“Brayden, we couldn’t be happier with how he’s coming along,” Gress said. “He’s a kid that every coach hopes to have to be able to lead the team. We always tell the kids that with good teams, coaches lead them, and with those great, elite teams, the players lead them. And that’s someone who we have in Brayden, someone we know can lead this team.”
And with an experienced leader coming back, Gress has no plans to change the way the offense operates.
“That’s the beauty of our offense — it can be anything you want it to be,” Gress said. “It’s that fluid. We’re obviously going to play to our advantage with the kids we have, and that starts up front with the offensive line. We’re going to highlight that as one of our strengths — and we’re not going to out-think ourselves. We’re going to put the ball into our best players’ hands. The players are going to win the games.”
• Tough Act to Follow
Arguably the most visible hole the Trojans have to fill this year is at running back.
Jaydon-Culp Bishop turned in the second-best season by a running back in Troy history, finishing the year with 2,457 yards. That trails only Ryan Brewer, who rushed for 2,856 yards in 1998. It was also the third-best scoring season for the Trojans as he finished with 40 touchdowns — 38 rushing and two kick returns — for 240 points, trailing two of Brewer’s seasons with 288 and 249 points.
The Trojans know they don’t need to chase history again, though, and competition for the featured back position has been fierce — though one Trojan is leading the race.
“Kevin Walters has had an absolutely tremendous summer,” Gress said. “His work ethic is like none other. The kid just has a hunger to succeed, and he had a great camp at running back.”
• Plenty of Targets
Four of the Trojans’ top five receivers may be gone from last season, as well, but Gress and company aren’t worried. Wideout may just be the deepest of the skill positions for Troy this year.
Austin Stanaford, listed at 6-foot-3 during his junior year last season, spent the season recovering from an injury and will be back for his senior year, and 6-1 Tucker Raskay was the team’s sixth-leading receiver last season. Those two, along with A.J. Heuker, another 6-3 senior, have stood out so far during the summer.
“Austin Stanaford and Tucker Raskay both had great camps at wide receiver,” Gress said. “And another kid who wasn’t a returning starter, is going to be a senior, that really popped up in practice was A.J. Heuker.
“We’re going to have a nice corps of receivers for Brayden to lean on. This coaching staff has been here for four years — we’re going on our fifth year — and while we’ve had a lot of scat-type receivers, we haven’t really had that tall jump-ball receiver that much. This year, we have about three or four guys that can do that.”
• The Future Is Soon?
When asked if he saw any pleasant surprises during camp, Gress talked about one large one — an entire class’ worth.
“Honestly, that sophomore class has a lot of kids that have really popped up on film and in practice,” Gress said. “Starting out with their effort, and obviously their athletic ability, too.
“That sophomore class has a lot of kids that we knew were going to be good one day down the road. But they’ve shown up a lot earlier on film and in practice than we thought they would.”
• A (Mostly) New Defense
While the holes to fill on offense were big ones, the holes on defense will be more numerous.
The Trojans had the best defense in the Greater Western Ohio Conference last season, allowing only 195.8 yards and 10.3 points per game — both tops in the conference. But nine of the starters off of that defense are gone, with only lineman Adam DeCerbo and defensive back Weston Smith returning.
Still, Gress isn’t all that worried.
“Just like with our offense, we’re going to highlight the strengths of our defense And that’s going to start up front in the trench with our defensive line,” Gress said. “With myself being the defensive line coach, too, I can say that this is the deepest defensive line we’ve had since I’ve been here. It’s going to be nice to be able to keep guys fresh and have waves that can keep going at teams, especially when we get into the third and fourth quarters.”
The defensive backfield has been a strength for Troy, too, with a number of ballhawks helping the team throughout its recent run of success.
“And that’s going to continue with Weston Smith, too,” Gress said. Smith led the team with five interceptions last year. “He’s a returning starter at corner, and his confidence level is at its peak. It’s the highest we’ve ever seen it. It’s his senior year, he knows the technique, and he’s been under (defensive backs) coach (Ben) Merkert for three years now — who, in my opinion, you don’t get a better DBs coach at the high school level than coach Merkert. Weston, his comfort and confidence being able to execute has been fun to watch during camp.”
Troy’s linebacker corps will be completely new, though, with the team saying goodbye to all four of last year’s linebackers — including Sam Jackson, last year’s Ohio Prep Sportswriters’ Association, All-Ohio and Southwest District Division II Defensive Player of the Year.
But summer camp showed Gress and company that the team has options there, too.
“We’re replacing all of our linebacker starters,” Gress said. “We have about four or five guys now from sophomores all the way up to seniors that are vying for those starting spots. And the competition for those spots right now is very intense. The boys see it, and they know, which is a good thing.”
Contact Troy Daily News Sports Editor Josh Brown at email@example.com, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.
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