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Sport Behind the Scenes With Troy: How Neal Brown Runs a Power 5 Giant-Killer

00:05  19 september  2018
00:05  19 september  2018 Source:   si.com

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This story appears in the Sept. 24–Oct. 1, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.

Tuesday, Sept. 11, 9:45 a.m. CDT

TROY STAFF MEETING ROOM

Neal Brown is mad, not only at the player who skipped a class but also at his strength staff. Brown, Troy’s fourth-year coach, has just found out that the truant was punished with a grueling workout—but not in the way Troy football players are supposed to be punished. Every Trojan who misses a class or a workout is to be tasked with pushing a weighted sled across the practice field. Each subsequent screwup adds weight to the sled. “When we mess up,” Brown tells his strength coaches, “we push the sled.”

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Why does Brown care so much about exacting one punishment instead of another? Because he believes that if his coaches are consistent, his players are more likely to be just as consistent. And then they will treat this week just as they would any other week.

a man wearing a hat© Joey Meredith/Troy Athletics

In some respects it is like any other week. There are practices Monday through Friday and a game on Saturday. But this game will take place in Lincoln, Neb., in a stadium that holds almost 60,000 more fans than Veterans Memorial Stadium, which sits just off U.S. Highway 231 in Troy, Ala. (pop. 19,000). It will be against a program whose $42.5 million budget—including a $1.15 million payout to Troy for scheduling this matchup—is five times greater than the Trojans’. It will be against a team whose backups would have been Troy’s top recruits. Yet the Trojans faced even bigger disparities last year and still came away with a win at LSU. Two years ago, they had eventual national champion Clemson on the ropes in Death Valley before the Tigers pulled out a win. Nebraska may be impressive, but it won’t awe Troy players.

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The support staffers leave and the offensive coaches remain to screen video of Nebraska’s defense. Troy’s offensive line averages 6'4" and 310 pounds. At 6'5" and 315 pounds, Cornhuskers nosetackle Mick Stoltenberg looks carved out of granite. Freedom Akinmoladun, a 6'4", 295-pound senior who lines up on the inside eye of the opposing offensive tackle, probably would play nose at Troy. (At 6'3" and 250 pounds, even Huskers punter Caleb Lightbourn is the size of an NFL rush end.) Another set of plays shows UCF’s defense, because first-year Cornhuskers coach Scott Frost and his staff have coached just one game since leaving UCF following a Peach Bowl win against Auburn. When the UCF video appears, the biggest difference between those Knights and these Cornhuskers becomes apparent. UCF had linebacker Shaquem Griffin making plays all over the field. Nebraska has excellent athletes, but the Cornhuskers don’t have a dynamo like that who can wreck every third-down play.

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As the coaches discuss rushing plays for junior quarterback Kaleb Barker, his position coach, Sean Reagan, urges that they send their QB outside. “I don’t want him to run up in there and get drilled in his earhole,” Reagan says.

Tuesday, 4:29 p.m.

OUTSIDE TROY’S NEW ENDZONE FOOTBALL BUILDING

“That’s not a moth,” Troy director of player personnel Brian Bennett says. “That’s a pterodactyl.”

  Behind the Scenes With Troy: How Neal Brown Runs a Power 5 Giant-Killer © Provided by TIME Inc.

The massive insect rests on the wall of the $24 million building the Trojans moved into in August. He’s welcome outside, but the inside is gloriously pest-free. The new building features a new weight room—which the strength staff hasn’t moved into yet because the weights are arriving any day now—spacious and bright coaches’ offices and meeting rooms, a fueling station for players that features four Powerade slushie machines* and a palatial locker room. The new locker room has two key features that the old one didn’t.

• A mud room between the locker room proper and the entrance to the field that would make the folks on Love It or List It jealous. Pads, gloves and shoes get stored here, and the naturally occurring odors that tend to cling to those items stay here and never enter the locker room.

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• There are no mice. Troy’s old locker room, which smells like the inside of a pair of shoulder pads that has been worn for months by a 300-pound lineman, left in the rain for two weeks and then baked in the sun for another two weeks, had a mouse problem that required frequent extermination.

*A Powerade slushie on a 92-degree day is a thing of wonder.

Some programs would have hidden this from the players, but Bennett—the brains behind Troy’s recruiting operation—says Brown demanded that the recruits see everything. He didn’t want to hide anything, because he didn’t want anyone to think the staff had pulled a bait-and-switch.

Now, instead of dreading the locker room tour, Trojans staffers can proudly parade recruits and their families through the new building. That makes Bennett’s job much easier.

Troy’s staff tries to recruit from a four-hour radius that includes Alabama and parts of Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana. Proximity to home is a huge selling point, but sometimes the Trojans find players who don’t need to be sold on the school because Troy is either their only FBS offer or their best FBS offer. Bennett, who worked for Charlie Strong at Louisville and Texas, and the Trojans’ on-field assistants excel at finding players other schools overlooked.

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One such player is linebacker Tyler Murray, who grew up in Baldwin, Fla., about 30 minutes west of Jacksonville. Troy linebackers coach Bam Hardmon, a Jacksonville native who played the position at Florida, pleaded with his fellow coaches to give Murray a spot in the 2017 class. Murray was a 180-pounder who projected as a cornerback, but Hardmon saw him as an eventual Spear linebacker in Troy’s scheme. Troy beat out Elon and Samford to get Murray, who now weighs 209 pounds and would make one especially huge play in Lincoln.

Barker, the quarterback, is another example. He played at tiny Priceville High in north Alabama. On top of the small-school stigma, Barker suffered a knee injury in high school that limited what colleges could see him do. His saving grace? He could cover and hit. Troy defensive coordinator Vic Koenning told Brown he’d take Barker as a safety, so the Trojans used a spot they’d been saving for a safety or a linebacker to sign Barker, who had no other FBS offers. (Current backup Sawyer Smith already occupied the slot in that class reserved for a quarterback.) Coaches gave Barker his first camp to prove he could play quarterback, or he was headed to play safety for Koenning. Two years later, Barker has replaced departed starter Brandon Silvers as QB1.

Tuesday, 10:09 p.m.

TROY DEFENSIVE STAFF MEETING ROOM

“I can’t take it anymore,” coordinator Vic Koenning says. Koenning and his assistants have just spent 90 minutes—with one five-minute break to discuss which college football coaches wear the tightest shirts and another to analyze the brain-eating scene near the end of the 2001 film Hannibal—figuring out how the various alignments and stunts in Koenning’s defense match up against Nebraska’s Dart concept. On the Dart, an offensive tackle pulls toward the center and rumbles through the middle of the defense. The quarterback can either keep the ball and follow the tackle or throw it to the perimeter. If dual threat Adrian Martinez plays, Troy coaches expect to see the Dart frequently, and it terrifies them. But after the true freshman from Fresno, Calif., hurt his right knee late in a 33–28 loss to Colorado on Sept. 8, sophomore walk-on Andrew Bunch replaced him. They need to be ready if Martinez, an electric runner, returns to the lineup.

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Wednesday, 9:15 a.m.

TROY LOCKER ROOM

Every team, no matter the budget, has to post a uniform reveal on social media in 2018. That’s why Troy linebacker A.J. Smiley is in the locker room putting on a game uniform. Andrii Rutnytskyi, a sports information graduate assistant from Ukraine, prepares a camera to shoot beauty shots of the helmet, jersey and gloves while Smiley flexes. A member of the equipment staff double-checks the uniform combination with communications director Adam Prendergast.

“Chrome [helmet], white [jersey], cardinal [pants],” Prendergast says. “Just like LSU last year.”

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