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Troy’s Leading Linebackers

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Individually gifted as they may be, together the trio of Hunter Reese, Tron Folsom, and Carlton Martial formed a sort of symbiotic relationship rivaled by few in college football.

“They feed off of each other and take advantage of the opportunities that come about.”
~Troy LB Coach Bam Hardmon

Sure, to some Troy fans, anything less than a league title could be construed as a bit of a disappointment, but that’s more a credit to what Neal Brown has built than anything else. Still, championship belts aside, ten wins is nothing scoff at.

The offense was the story tonight, but Vic Koenning’s defense was the biggest reason for the Trojans’ success in 2018.

In week three, at Nebraska, Troy overcame a 21% offensive percentile performance, thanks to a 74% defensive showing in order to pull of the Power Five road win. In the loss to Liberty, the defense posted an 82nd percentile performance, but it wasn’t enough with the offense finishing in the 16th percentile.

Then, down the stretch, against Sun Belt West champ Louisiana, at Georgia Southern, Texas State, and at conference winner App State, the defense rattled off 86%, 82%, 87%, and 86% games. The only time the offense went above 30% in that stretch was at Georgia Southern, and yet the team still managed to go 3-1, the lone loss coming in Boone.

Granted, Brandon Hall’s elite special teams unit played an important role, as well, but within that defense, it was Hall and Bam Hardmon’s linebackers that deserve the most credit.

Behind solid defensive line play, albeit not as playmaking, Troy entered the postseason ranked 15th in run defense S&P+, allowing just 43% of opposing carries to gain 5+ yards, good for 26th in the FBS, and stopping ball carriers at or behind the line of scrimmage 24.2% of the time, which was 13th.

Still, it was Hunter Reese, Tron Folsom, Carlton Martial and company making the bulk of those impact plays. With a 7.1% havoc rate -- tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles per play -- the Troy linebackers sit in the national top ten.

Now, this wasn’t a total shock. Both Reese and Folsom entered the year in the top 26 of the preseason Sun Belt Top 100.

However, the emergence of redshirt freshman Martial, a former walk-on who was put on scholarship just prior to the 2018 campaign, has been one of the league’s most pleasant surprises.

Individually gifted as they may be, together the trio formed a sort of symbiotic relationship rivaled by few in college football.

“It’s a good group of guys,” Hardmon explained. “They feed off of each other and take advantage of the opportunities that come about.”

Reese, the lone senior of the group, was both a leader in the locker room, on the practice field, and in the box score. He finished the regular season second in the Sun Belt with 7.5 sacks, third with 14.5 tackles for loss, and third with 19 run stuffs, en route to earning first team all-conference honors for the second consecutive time.

“Reese is a hard worker,” said Hardmon. “He has become a technician at the position.”

Folsom made his way onto the All-Sun Belt second team, leading Troy in tackles, including nine for a loss, with three sacks, and 9.5 run stuffs. A menace in coverage, too, he had the most interceptions of any conference linebacker, one of which was a pick six, and passes defensed per game.

Hardmon continued, “Folsom is a really smart, versatile that can run, and tackles well.”

Martial, meanwhile, despite only starting eight games, led all freshmen in the league with 70 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss and finished second in sacks, with three. He also added another 11.5 run stuffs, trailing only Reese on the team, and, according to Pro Football Focus, graded out as Troy’s best defender, and the sixth best against the run in the entire country.

“Martial is a young, physical, instinctive player that has continued to get better,” Hardmon concluded.

Even with Reese’s impending departure, don’t expect this group to take much of a step back in 2019, either. Both Martial and Folsom will be back, as will Justin Whisenhunt, who had five tackles for loss and 7.5 stuffs of his own on a somewhat limited sample size, not to mention incoming freshman Ahdarrious Gee, perhaps Troy’s biggest pull of the early signing period. Gee, who Southern Pigskin Recruiting Expert Barry Every ranked as one of the top 15 prospects in all of South Georgia for the Class of 2019, could step in and contribute right away.

Even as good as the defense was, on the whole, it could be even better come next season. Cedarius Rookard and Blace Brown will be tough to replace in the secondary, as will Trevon Sanders, the spearhead of the defensive line, but pretty much every other meaningful contributor is back.

Now headed into the offseason with some momentum, having just beaten a very good Buffalo team in the Dollar General Bowl, Troy is poised to enter the new year with as good a shot to win the league as anyone. They say defense wins championships, and with this linebacking corps leading an athletic, talented unit, just a little more consistency on the other side of the ball, the kind that we saw tonight, could very well lead to just that.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP