I haven’t talked to Citadel coach Kevin Higgins about this in detail, but it seems like defense will be a point of emphasis as the Bulldogs head into the off-season and into spring practice.
At least, that’s the direction in which the stats point.
The Citadel (7-4,5-3 SoCon) wound up fifth in the league in scoring defense (27.6 ppg) and fifth in total defense (383.2 yards per game) this season, down from second (23.4 ppg) and third (343.8 ypg) in 2011.
That can be almost entirely attributed to the Bulldogs’ struggles to stop the run. The Citadel went from fifth in rushing defense last year (167.9 ypg) to seventh this year (221.7 ypg), a difference of about 54 yards per game.
Well, first of all The Citadel lost defensive coordinator Josh Conklin to Tennessee in the off-season, and lost four senior linebackers as well. The Bulldogs also were without all-SoCon defensive tackle Derek Douglas for the first three games. And though he played well when he came back, Douglas was never at 100 percent this season.
And then the injuries started to pile up, with sophomore linebacker Carl Robinson going down in the fifth game against Chattanooga and sophomore linebacker Rah Muhammad lost for the season with an ankle injury against Samford. During a three-game stretch vs. Chattanooga, Samford and Western Carolina, the Bulldogs gave up 32.3 points and 267 rushing yards per game.
With freshman linebacker James Riley taking off his redshirt, the defense pulled it together long enough for The Citadel to win its final three games.
The good news is that defensive coordinator Denny Doornbos returns a bunch of young playmakers. Despite playing in only four games, Riley made the all-SoCon freshman team, along with DT Mitchell Jeter and DE Mark Thomas. Only two seniors (DE Chris Billinglsea and S Davis Boyle) started the season finale against Furman.
And assuming a return to good health for Robinson and Muhammad, the Bulldogs will be stacked at LB with Riley and sophomore Carson Smith also back.
The Citadel led the SoCon with 26 sacks, but the Bulldogs were not good enough on third down, allowing foes to convert 43.1 percent of the time. That was eighth in the league, better only than Western Carolina. Samford, by way of contrast, led the league at 29.4 percent.
The Bulldogs’ emphasis during the last off-season was improving their passing game, and that project can be deemed a success. The Citadel went from last in the league with 32.2 yards per game in 2011 (with one TD and seven interceptions) to seventh (best among the three option teams) with 81.8 yards per game, with four TDs and just five interceptions.
Another area of concern coming into the season was field-goal kicking, and Thomas Warren did well, hitting 9 of 15 (60 percent), tied for sixth in the league. Of course, that one he made against Georgia Southern would make up for a lot of misses.
The Bulldogs were once again the least penalized team in the SoCon, and made strides in turnover margin, going from -3 last year to +3 this year, cutting turnovers committed from 21 to 14.
Next season, the Bulldogs will have all seniors starting on the offensive line (assuming Keith Carter gets back from his torn Achilles), a senior (Ben Dupree) and a junior (Aaron Miller) at QB, and a senior at fullback (Darien Robinson). They will miss slotbacks Rickey Anderson and Van Dyke Jones, but Terrance Martin, Dalton Trevino and Vinny Miller are ready to roll.
Next season, The Citadel will play 12 games, six at home. The home games will be against Charleston Southern, VMI, App State, Samford, Wofford and Furman. SoCon road games are at Georgia Southern, Chattanooga, Western Carolina and Elon. Non-conference road games are at Clemson and Old Dominion.
If the Bulldogs can squeeze an 8-4 overall record and 5-3 SoCon mark out of that, they might be playoff bound. After all, 24 teams make the FCS playoffs next year.