TROY – In the past two years, Thompson High School has been a state football power. For the past decade, however, the Warriors were known for wrestling.
One of its products, KJ Robertson – a state individual wrestling champion – still draws on that sport as he thrives at linebacker for the Troy Trojans.
“Hand-eye coordination, aggressiveness, low center of gravity, being able to balance, being able to change direction, your grip, your hand-striking ability, all of that is a big part of wrestling,” the 6-foot-1, 232-pound Robertson said. “So there is a lot of carryover to football.”
Not just football – those are traits of an inside linebacker. The Trojans’ corps may not be big in number, but there is confidence the quality is there as Troy prepares to open the season Aug. 31 at home against Campbell.
Carlton Martial is the leader of the group, a freshman All-American last year. Robertson is also a sophomore who played in 11 games as a special teams player and a reserve linebacker last year. Justin Whisenhunt (6-1, 222), a junior, has played in every game the past two seasons and started five games last year. A.J. Smiley (6-3, 229), a fifth-year senior, has played in 24 of the Trojans’ 26 games in the past two seasons.
“We don’t have a lot of depth, but I think between those four guys you have to feel like you’ve got some guys who have played a lot of snaps – or can play a lot of snaps,” Troy defensive coordinator Brandon Hall said.
Robertson forced a fumble and had a season-high four tackles against Georgia State last season. He recorded three quarterback hurries and broke up a pass in his freshman year.
“He’s very similar to Whiz – a big guy, real physical,” Hall said. “He runs well. He’s a really smart kid. He cares. He’s a really good person. Great effort. The type of person you like being around. He does a really good job.”
Robertson said this season is much more comfortable than playing as a true freshman.
“Year 1 was more me just trying to learn the whole defense and get acclimated to the speed of college football,” the sophomore said. “Year 2 is me just really going after it. I know the defense very well and it’s just me making the plays that I need to make.”
He said he’s improved the most in his knowledge and awareness of the game.
“Last year I was just going to the ball, not paying attention to what’s around me,” Robertson said. “This year it’s more scheme-acclimated, more down-and-distance and I’m able to play around and give help to people around me.”
He said he’s very confident in the defense and in Hall and linebackers coach Andrew Warwick.
“They’re putting us in great positions to win one-on-one battles,” he said. “I like our secondary. I think we have one of the best lines in the country. When everybody’s clicking I think we’re going to be a real danger to anybody we play.”
He said all four inside linebackers can make plays. He added that Martial is one of the most instinctive players he’s ever seen.
“It’s very, very easy to play alongside Martial because he can do it all,” Robertson said. “It just makes everybody else’s jobs easy.”
It’s a veritable Alabama Gang with Robertson from Alabaster (Thompson High), Martial from Mobile (McGill-Toolen), Whisenhunt from Birmingham (Ramsay) and Smiley from Hoover (Spain Park).
“Whiz and A.J. have the same motor,” he said. “Whiz is the go get it guy and A.J. is one of the hardest workers that I’ve ever seen. They both have great size. If any of us are in at the same time, it’s very easy because we’re great at communicating with each other. They’re just great guys and doing their thing.”
He admitted the season opener can’t get here fast enough.
“We’re tired of beating up on each other and ready to go after somebody else,” Robertson said.