TROY – There is no truth to the rumor that Troy’s quarterback room needed enlarging in the offseason. Of course, there may not be a lot of elbow room, either.
The Trojans will open spring practice on Tuesday with five quarterbacks on scholarship. Last year, Kaleb Barker won a close battle with Sawyer Smith and started the first six games of the season.
Barker kept getting better and better, but suffered a season-ending knee injury during an Oct. 4 victory over Georgia State.
Smith guided the Trojan’ attack the final seven games. Just like Barker, he kept improving and looking more comfortable.
They are back for another battle this season, but they aren’t alone. Last year’s eventual backup, Gunnar Watson, is a redshirt freshman, and Troy’s touted signing class included junior college and former Vanderbilt transfer Jacob Free of Brantley and true freshman Gavin Screws of Jacksonville, Fla.
With just 15 spring practices to evaluate, including the annual T-Day Game on April 20, managing practice reps will be a challenge for head coach Chip Lindsey and offensive coordinator Ryan Pugh.
“We’ll get everybody some reps early on, but as we go through spring we obviously want to try to narrow it down,” Lindsey said last week. “I think it’s a good opportunity for those guys because it’s a clean slate. I’ve never been on the field with any of those guys. …
“I think right now all five guys are really excited to get on the field and have their opportunity. We’ve been doing some football-related stuff without a football, like the NCAA allows you to do. They’ve all gotten reps with that. Really, just learning to communicate, learning our terminology.”
Pugh said he’s excited to have competition anywhere on the field, but especially at quarterback.
“Competition leads to improvement and improvement leads to success,” Pugh said on National Signing Day last month. “You want guys competing at every spot. It doesn’t matter what position we play on offense, competition is going to make everybody better.
“Even on our coaching staff, we want to challenge each other to be great coaches. Coach Lindsey does that. It starts with him and his vision for this program. He wants competition. We, as coaches, know that helps create improvement, that helps build a team, that helps everybody get better. We want to compete on a daily basis, whether it’s on the field, off the field or in the classroom. We want to compete. There are a lot of quarterbacks in that room, but it’s good.”
Barker, a 6-foot-1, 206-pound senior from Decatur, finished his injury-ended season with the highest completion percent (73.0) in school history and the fifth-highest efficiency rating (163.6). He threw 10 touchdown passes and just two interceptions in his six starts. Barker also rushed for 111 yards on just five carries in that ill-fated Georgia State game, which featured a 75-yard run, the longest by a quarterback in Troy’s Division I history.
“Seeing and interacting with him so far, (his rehab) seems to be going well,” Pugh said. “It’s hard to comment on his health. I see him and he’s in there working hard. He’s eager and we are as well.”
Smith, a 6-foot-3, 219-pound junior from Cantonment, Fla., played in all 12 games last season and took the starting role when Barker went down. He was 18 of 22 passing for 317 yards in Troy’s victory over Louisiana. He also threw three touchdown passes against rival South Alabama. He was dominating in the bowl victory over Buffalo, completed 31 of 44 passes for 320 yards and four touchdowns.
Watson, a 6-3, 205-pound redshirt freshman from Butler, Ga., played in two games for Troy last season – against Florida A&M in Week 2 and against Liberty in Week 7, Smith’s first start.
Free is a 6-5, 220-pound sophomore. He threw for 2,036 yards and 14 touchdowns against four interceptions last year as a redshirt freshman at Northwest Mississippi Community College. He redshirted at Vanderbilt during the 2017 season.
Screws, a 6-2, 210-pounder from Jacksonville, Fla., was a three-time all-state selection at Baldwin High in Jacksonville. He had 7,831 career passing yards with 83 touchdowns in his prep career.
Lindsey is eager to see how this plays out. He talked about the standard he will use to determine who wins this coveted job.
“Basically, the guy that leads our team and affects the other 10 guys the best way is the guy we need to have as our quarterback,” the coach said.