With quarterback Corey Robinson back after a smashing freshman season and (as always) the Sun Belt's best top-to-bottom collection of talent, not even the loss of five players in one fell swoop should be enough to dislodge Troy from their perch as conference favorites.
But could it be enough to damage the Trojans' chances of actually following through on those expectations? As the Dothan Eagle reports, the four players declared academically ineligible and fifth dismissed for team rules violations include several expected to be major contributors:
Wide receivers Jamel Johnson and Chip Reeves, along with cornerback KeJuan Phillips and linebacker Mark Wilson are academically ineligible, while defensive end R.J. Roberts was dismissed for a violation of team rules.The stats back those projections up: Reeves and Johnson were the team's fourth and fifth-leading receivers a year ago, and with third-round draft pick Jerrel Jernigan off to the NFL, there's going to be plenty of receptions out there for the Trojans' receiving corps. Despite his role as part-time starter and nickelback, Phillips finished ninth on the team in tackles.
Johnson and Reeves were projected starters. Phillips has starting experience and was a starter at one cornerback spot coming out of spring practice.
Head coach Larry Blakeney summed up the causes behind the departures in his typically folksy Southern fashion:
“You can lead a horse to the water, but you can’t force them to drink it,” Blakeney said.Certainly, it's nothing like losing Robinson or leading pass rusher Jonathan Massaqoui (12.5 sacks in 2010, fourth nationally) would be for the Trojans. To extend Blakeley's metaphor, there's still no reason to think he can't lead his team to the brink of yet another Sun Belt title.
But can they drink from that final championship cup again? Saying good-bye to players like Johnson, Reeves, and Phillips won't help.