The Citadel preview: Mike Houston confident Bulldogs’ defense will be better

The Citadel linebacker James Riley (right) and the Bulldogs will face a lot of experienced quarterbacks in the SoCon this season. FILE/PAUL ZOELLER/P&CSTAFF

The Citadel linebacker James Riley (right) and the Bulldogs will face a lot of experienced quarterbacks in the SoCon this season. FILE/PAUL ZOELLER/P&CSTAFF

Jeff Hartsell Postandcourier.com
Aug 20 2015

Only one Southern Conference football team graduated a starting quarterback from last season. That team was The Citadel, and the quarterback was Aaron Miller. That means two things for the 2015 Bulldogs — they need a new quarterback, and their defense better be prepared to face a stacked lineup of experienced quarterbacks in league play.

“Everybody’s got their quarterback back, except for us,” second-year Citadel coach Mike Houston said. “That’s going to be a big challenge, on offense and defense.” Either Cam Jackson or Dominique Allen will earn the starting QB job for The Citadel. And with 10 starters back on offense, odds are the Bulldogs will at least come close to replicating last season’s offensive numbers, when The Citadel’s triple option ranked No. 1 in the SoCon in total offense and rushing offense.

But the key to improving on last year’s 5-7 overall record (and 3-4 SoCon mark) will likely depend on how well The Citadel’s defense deals with those veteran SoCon quarterbacks.

Last season, the Bulldogs ranked seventh in league games in total defense, allowing 449 yards per game, and last in passing defense, giving up league-worst averages of 225 yards per game and 9.1 yards per attempt. SoCon quarterbacks had their way with the Bulldogs, averaging 12 carries for 84 yards on the ground and 16 of 24 (64.5 percent) for 225 yards through the air.

Five league quarterbacks rushed for at least 75 yards against The Citadel, led by Wofford’s Evan Jacks with 22 carries for 169 yards in a 17-13 Terriers victory. SoCon player of the year Jacob Huesman of Chattanooga ran for 81 yards and passed for 163; Mercer’s John Russ combined 96 yards rushing with 178 passing; and Furman freshman P.J. Blazejowski passed for 307 yards while running for 75. But the real devastation was wrought by Western Carolina’s Troy Mitchell, who totaled 422 yards of total offense in a 29-15 win, with 291 through the air and 131 on the ground.

Houston is confident that the defense will fare better this time around against those players. “First off, the kids are understanding the scheme much better than they did a year ago,” Houston said of the Bulldogs’ 4-2-5 look, which features two linebackers and a “bandit” position. “Our staff is more on the same page than they were a year ago. “(Defensive coordinator) Maurice Drayton did a great job with the staff this summer, developing game plans and bringing everything together, and I think he’s ready to take the defense and take off with it.”

The Bulldogs lose five starters on defense, including stalwarts Cam Mobley and Justin Oxendine up front, linebacker Carl Robinson and bandit Rah Muhammad and cornerback Walker Smith. “We graduated some very good players,” Houston said. “But some of the guys we will add into the equation will increase the team speed overall. I think you will see a better prepared, more athletic group than we had a year ago.”

Senior Mitchell Jeter and sophomore Jonathan King are back to anchor the defensive line, and ends Joe Crochet and Mark Thomas have plenty of experience. Junior linebacker Tevin Floyd was the team’s top tackler a year ago, and returns alongside junior James Riley. Bandit will require a new starter, with junior Dondray Copeland (6-2, 213) the top candidate.

Senior Mariel Cooper, a grad-student transfer from South Carolina State, should step into Walker’s cornerback spot, bringing experience to a secondary that includes sophomore corner Dee Delaney, junior safety Malik Diggs and senior safety Nick Willis.

“We understand we have a lot to work on,” said Riley. “Coach Houston came in last year and really changed the program, and maybe one year’s time was not enough to grasp everything. But now I think we understand, we have to play fast and attack the ball. Our mindset has definitely changed.”

On offense, the Bulldogs lose only QB Miller among the starters. All-SoCon pick Sam Frye leads five returning starters on the offensive line, while seniors Alex Glover and Brandon Eakins do the same for the receiver group. Fullbacks go three-deep with Isiaha Smith, Tyler Renew and Evan McField, and Cam Jackson will join senior Vinny Miller at slotback if he does not win the QB job.

Special teams returns both kicker Eric Goins and punter Will Vanvick, but the Bulldogs need more out of the return game after ranking fifth in punt returns and seventh in kickoff returns, with no touchdowns via return.

The schedule opens with FCS non-scholarship Davidson before a key SoCon matchup with Western Carolina. The Bulldogs will try to snap losing streaks against Charleston Southern (two) and Wofford (16). Four of the final six games are on the road, including the season-ender at South Carolina on Nov. 21.

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