At Citadel, ‘culture shift’ led to Bulldogs’ surge

Vinny Miller & other veteran players acknowledge the culture shift Coach Houston has brought to the team.

Vinny Miller & other veteran players acknowledge the culture shift Coach Houston has brought to the team.

By: Jeff Hartsell post&courier.com
Oct 30 2015 4:03 pm

Veteran Citadel players such as Vinny Miller and Joe Crochet have lived through the changes. They were recruited by one head coach and his assistants, and are playing out their college football careers under another set of coaches. They describe the difference as a “culture shift,” and it’s one that has the 5-2 Bulldogs at 4-0 in the Southern Conference for the first time since 1979, and taking dead aim at a first SoCon title and FCS playoff bid since 1979. The next obstacle is Saturday’s 2 p.m. game against Mercer (3-4, 0-3) at Johnson Hagood Stadium.

“When the new coaches came in, you could definitely feel a culture shift,” said redshirt junior defensive end Crochet. “It was that extra ‘umph’ to accelerate us to where we are today.” Bulldogs upperclassmen were recruited and signed by former coach Kevin Higgins, who had a record of 43-58 in nine seasons at The Citadel before leaving in December 2013 to become assistant head coach at Wake Forest. Higgins reintroduced the triple option to Citadel football, and posted overall records of 7-4 and 5-7 in his last two seasons, going 5-3 in the SoCon in 2012 and 4-4 in 2013 to finish fourth in the league both seasons.

Enter Mike Houston, who was hired from Lenoir-Rhyne after leading the Bears to the Division II national championship game in 2013. Houston was 5-7 overall and 3-4 in the SoCon in his first season at The Citadel in 2014, but the players will tell you that things already had changed. “It was just a higher level of energy,” said Miller, a senior slotback from North Augusta. “I feel like there were higher expectations for us as far as our level of play goes. The coaches expect more from us and push us to a higher level. “It was not hard to buy in with these guys, because you could see the level of passion in everything they do. That helps drive everything that we do.”

Of course, there are other changes at play, as well. The SoCon is a much different league now than it was during Higgins’ tenure. Powerhouse programs Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, with nine FCS national championships and 22 league titles between them, left the league after the 2013 season, the same time Higgins left The Citadel. They were replaced by perennial struggler VMI and startup program Mercer, which is now in its second SoCon season and third under former Furman coach Bobby Lamb since restarting its team.

The Bears have had their share of hard luck since joining the SoCon, losing three league games by a total of 10 points this season. Last year, Mercer was 1-6 in the SoCon, with four losses by a total of 17 points. “He’s starting a program, and that’s hard to do,” Houston said of Lamb. “You don’t have a tradition, you don’t have leadership. He’s building those things now. But you look now, and he’s got a ton of fourth-year players on the roster. “I think you will see them win those close games at some point. They’ve got as much talent as anybody in the league on their roster, so it’s coming.”

Mercer quarterback John Russ, a junior, is hitting 61.5 percent of his passes for 1,619 yards and 12 touchdowns with no interceptions. He’ll face a Citadel defense that is tops in the league with 13 interceptions. Bears running back Tee Mitchell, a sophomore who played at the Air Force Academy prep school, is second in the SoCon in rushing, averaging 95.4 yards with six touchdowns. He’s taken over as the Bears’ leading rusher from Alex Lakes, who was the SoCon’s top rusher a year ago with 1,107 yards and 17 touchdowns. This season, Lakes has 399 yards and five TDs, averaging 66.5 yards per game

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