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Interim coaches lead Troy and Duke into Birmingham Bowl with new leaders waiting in wings

Troy and Duke both enter the Birmingham Bowl in that weird limbo between coaching regimes.

The teams will be led by interim coaches in Saturday’s game at Protective Stadium in Birmingham, Alabama, after the Blue Devils lost Mike Elko to Texas A&M and the Trojans’ Jon Sumrall left for Tulane. The schools have already hired their successors, with Duke bringing in Penn State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and Troy hiring Notre Dame offensive coordinator Gerad Parker.

And the players emerged from the turmoil of coaching changes with a game still to play.

“We’re all just one big happy family right now,” Duke linebacker Tre Freeman said.

The Trojans (11-2) have won 10 consecutive games and a second-straight Sun Belt Conference championship. They’re trying to become the first team in program history with back-to-back 12-win seasons.

“What you’ve got to do is just focus on finishing the season out the right way,” Troy interim coach Greg Gasparato said. “This is a reward for the season that they’ve had: another conference championship, 11 wins to this point, trying to get No. 12 back-to-back seasons.

“And also having the ability to be the only Sun Belt team to ever beat a Power Five team in a bowl game. So there’s a lot of little motivations for this team.”

The Blue Devils (7-5), meanwhile, are trying to reach eight wins in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2014-15.


Duke associate head coach Trooper Taylor is leading the Blue Devils through the bowl game. Taylor has been on the staff since 2019, serving as associate head coach the past three seasons.

“His energy’s always up,” Freeman said. “He’s always making jokes. Like, there’s never a dull moment with Trooper.”

Troy’s first-year defensive coordinator Gasparato leads a defense that ranks 10th nationally in scoring and rushing defense and 15th in total defense.


The Blue Devils have turned to freshman Grayson Loftis as their starting quarterback. Riley Leonard is headed to Notre Dame. Loftis has passed for 823 yards with eight touchdowns against three interceptions.

“I think he’s just gotten efficient running the offense, and they don’t ask him to do things that are outside of his wheelhouse,” Gasparato said. “And he’s gotten better as everybody would as they get reps.”

The freshman feels like “just being myself” is the key to fitting into his new role and earning teammates’ trust.

“They know they can count on who I’m going to be each day,” Loftis said. “And I think leaning on some of the older guys that have been through this process has been helpful as well.”


Led by Javon Solomon, Troy has already set the Sun Belt Conference record with 45 sacks, ranking sixth nationally.

Solomon’s 16 sacks lead the nation, and he has 10 over the last four games. Duke has only allowed 15 sacks this season, and tackle Graham Barton was Duke’s only first-team All-ACC pick.


The biggest challenge facing Duke’s defense will be containing Troy running back Kimani Vidal. Vidal, the Sun Belt offensive player of the year and a third-team AP All-American, has run for 1,582 yards and 14 touchdowns. The program’s career rushing leader ran for 233 yards and five TDs in the Sun Belt title game against Appalachian State.


Both teams are riding bowl winning streaks. Troy’s five straight bowl victories stands tied with Georgia for the second-longest active streak, one behind Minnesota. Duke is right behind with four consecutive bowl wins.

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