A sneak peek at Friday’s story on the start of spring practice for The Citadel:
Even during last year’s 7-4 season – only The Citadel’s third winning record since 1997 – the Bulldogs’ defense took a statistical step back.
That’s the area coach Kevin Higgins wants to put under the microscope as spring football practice begins today.
“We didn’t do as good a job as I would like defending the run last year,” said Higgins, who posted his second winning mark in eight years at The Citadel. “We’ll be looking hard at our front seven, looking at how we play different schemes. We have to improve the play of our front seven against the run.”
The Bulldogs ranked seventh in the Southern Conference in rushing defense last year, allowing 221.7 yards per game. That was up 32 percent from 2011, when The Citadel ranked fifth and allowed 167.9 rushing yards per game.
That’s also the major reason the Bulldogs slid from third to fifth in total defense and from second to fifth in scoring defense.
Injuries certainly played a role, as all-SoCon defensive Derek Douglas missed the first three games as he recovered from a torn ACL, and was probably never 100 percent. Linebackers Carl Robinson and Rah Muhammad suffered season-ending injuries; during a four-game midseason stretch when the Bulldogs played without either or both of those sophomores, they allowed 271 rushing yards per game against Chattanooga, Samford, Western Carolina and Wofford.
The emergence of freshman linebacker James Riley helped stabilize the run defense as the Bulldogs won their final three games.
Robinson and defensive tackle Cam Mobley will miss spring practice as they recover from injury, but Muhammad should return. Senior defensive end Chris Billingslea is the only major loss along the front seven.
On offense, Higgins wants to expand the shotgun formations he introduced to the Bulldogs’ triple option last year. Quarterbacks Ben Dupree and Aaron Miller combined to hit 50.4 percent of their passes for 900 yards and four touchdowns last year, compared with 45.3 percent, 310 yards and no TDs in 2011.
“We’re talking about how we might expand our shotgun package,” Higgins said. “We’ll still be under center most of the time, but a higher percentage of the time we’ll be going out of shotgun. We’ll also look at ways to get Aaron and Ben on the field at the same time.”
Another crucial area is punting, where all-SoCon pick Cass Couey has finally graduated. Eric Goins and Austin Jordan will compete for that job.
“That’s as important a battle as at any position,” Higgins said. “People don’t realize how important Cass has been the last four years in flipping field position for us.”
• Offensive guard Keith Carter (Achilles tendon) also will miss the spring … The spring game is set for March 9.