Ah, football. So glad to see you again, old friend. The offseason was long and hard. The lack of a winter confused us. We’ve had to wade through conference realignment conspiracy theories again, with some of those rumors involving our own conference.
Yes, football is back, and just in time.
The Citadel vs. Charleston Southern, to be played at historic Johnson Hagood Stadium, with kickoff at 6:00 pm ET on Saturday, September 1. The game will not be televised, although it will be webcast on Bulldog Insider (subscription service) and can be heard on radio via the twelve affiliates of The Citadel Sports Network. Danny Reed (the “Voice of the Bulldogs”) will call the action alongside analyst Josh Baker, with Lee Glaze roaming the sidelines and Walt Nadzak providing pre-game, halftime, and post-game commentary. After the game, there will be a fireworks show, which probably guarantees that a series of thunderstorms will begin to pass through Charleston during the second half.
Some links of note:
The Citadel game notes The Citadel depth chart SoCon weekly release
Oh, and just for fun, a few things I wrote in the spring and summer:
Why I don’t expect an overflow crowd at Saturday’s game
A brief look at returning lettermen for The Citadel and its opponents
An analysis of attendance at Johnson Hagood Stadium over the past five decades
My ridiculously long-winded manifesto on why The Citadel needs to add more varsity sports
Watching The Post and Courier‘s video preview for The Citadel’s upcoming season, I was interested to hear Jeff Hartsell state that head coach Kevin Higgins was not under any particular pressure in terms of wins and losses for this year. According to Hartsell, The Citadel administration is “all-in” on Higgins, who is now in his eighth season at the military college.
I’m not surprised school officials would take that position in public (it is, after all, the correct thing to do). I was a little curious to hear Hartsell say so without equivocation, which tells me the public position is also the private one. Higgins has one year remaining on his contract after this season, to be sure, and The Citadel is not known for terminating coaches in that situation.
Not that I’m advocating a “win this year or else” strategy with regards to Higgins; far from it. I think it’s good to have a veteran coach running things. As long as he still has the energy for the job (and that certainly appears to be the case), I like the idea of having a coach who has been at the school long enough to know what to do and what not to do. He knows how to approach things that are unique to The Citadel, whether it be recruiting or corps squad/rest of corps relations (this tweet is evidence of the latter).
In other words, he’s made all the big mistakes he’s going to make. Now, though, I would like to see him win a few more games, which would go along nicely with his cutting-edge practice field attire.
I think it’s important to be realistic about a football program that has had just one winning season since 1997. The definition of a successful campaign this year, then, is to finish with more wins than losses. As Hartsell also said in the video preview, that’s what fans should be expecting (in terms of a breakthrough).
It won’t be easy. The schedule is not as conducive to a winning year as one would like. There are only five home games, and in addition to that the slate is front-loaded. It is not out of the question The Citadel could be 1-4 after its first five games. In fact, the football cognoscenti of the SoCon would predict exactly that. The Bulldogs were picked to finish next-to-last in the league by both the media writers and the coaches.
Therefore, a key to the season is improving upon that 1-4 expectation. That is quite possible, in my view. The Bulldogs more than held their own last season against the three league opponents they will play in that five-game stretch. The Citadel lost by seven points to Appalachian State at home, narrowly missed out on a road upset of Georgia Southern, and stunned Chattanooga (in Chattanooga!) after spotting the Mocs a 27-point lead.
The Citadel won’t be favored to be as competitive against North Carolina State, though nothing is impossible (and taking no chances, Tom O’Brien is already preparing his team for the triple option). The Bulldogs are a solid favorite against Charleston Southern. (I get a little nervous whenever I write that The Citadel is a “solid favorite” over any team.)
The Citadel total offense (in yards) vs. SoCon opponents, 2010: 359, 304, 263, 197, 160, 143, 300, 203
The Citadel total offense (in yards) vs. SoCon opponents, 2011: 301, 267, 268, 238, 361, 447, 264, 259
Triple O’Higgins was clearly better last season, yet there is plenty of room for improvement. The Citadel averaged 300.6 yards of total offense in eight league games. That number rises to 318.8 counting the non-conference contests, which was the worst total in the SoCon.
Of course, the numbers that matter are points, but total offense is generally a good indicator of points scored, and The Citadel’s 23.5 points per game finished next-to-last in the SoCon, ahead of only hapless Western Carolina.
Most of The Citadel’s total offense came in rushing, which will surprise nobody. The Bulldogs only averaged 32.2 yards passing per contest, which ranked last in the entire country. In a way, that makes The Citadel’s rushing totals all the more impressive, given every opponent could focus exclusively on the run — and I do mean exclusively.
I remember driving through a torrential thunderstorm on I-26 and listening to Danny Reed call the Bulldogs’ game against Elon. “10 men in the box for Elon,” he said about one early second-quarter play. Later on, he exclaimed, “Now the Phoenix have 11 men in the box!” As the game wound down to its conclusion, I was half-expecting him to say that Elon was putting 12 men in the box.
The lack of a passing threat was a key reason why the Bulldogs, despite finishing third in the SoCon (and the nation) in rushing, wound up finishing last in the league in total first downs.
For this season, The Citadel needs to at least make its opponents nervous about the possibility of a forward pass. To do so, a new formation has been added to the playbook:
A new feature of The Citadel offense this year will be a heavier reliance on the shotgun, a formation which will allow both returning quarterbacks to improve their accuracy and make the Bulldogs more of a productive passing team.
Kevin Higgins is not going to tell anybody what numbers he is looking for in the passing game, which is understandable, because he really isn’t looking for a specific amount of receiving yards. He just wants to make opponents honor the pass, which will in turn help the Bulldogs’ rushing attack.
While there may be no “magic number”, I believe some parameters for success can be estimated. It appears The Citadel does plan to throw the ball a bit more often this season. If the idea is to average 10-12 pass attempts per game (the Bulldogs averaged a shade under 7 attempts last season), then I think The Citadel needs to average around 8.0-8.5 yards per pass attempt at a minimum (preferably it should be above 9 yards per attempt). Last season, that number was 4.7 ypa, an awful average.
As for interceptions, I am inclined to think the goal should be no more than one per 25 attempts, though that number could fluctuate based on overall total offense production and the number of possessions per game. Last season the Bulldogs threw seven interceptions in only 75 passing attempts, which is very poor. Interestingly, Wofford tossed seven picks in 108 attempts, which isn’t much better — but the Terriers also threw eight touchdown passes. The Citadel only had one TD pass, and that was a halfback option pass by Rickey Anderson.
While the Bulldogs need to improve in the passing game, the team needs to be careful not to lose its identity as a run-first, run-second, run-as-much-as-possible offense. The Citadel needs to stick to the basics. This isn’t about “balance”. Nothing is more overrated than balance in an offense. It’s not how you score points, it’s how many points you score. Case in point: since 1990, there have been ten games in which The Citadel has had seven or fewer passing yards. The record for the Bulldogs in those ten games? 6-4.
Regardless of formation variance, I think the offense will be better this season. The Citadel has a generally solid cast of returnees, including a plethora of slotbacks, two quality B-backs, and two quarterbacks. The largely experienced offensive line is led by the offense’s best player, center Mike Sellers.
There is some concern about the wide receiver position, but to me the biggest question marks are the two tackle positions and the rotating quarterbacks. The Citadel recently made a significant move at the tackle position, inserting Cullen Brown at starting right tackle. Alex Glover will now start at tight end.
Regarding the QBs, I am not a huge believer in the notion that you must have a #1 guy at the position, at least at the college level. However, I do wonder about the timing of the offense when you combine two quarterbacks with two different B-backs. Everyone remembers the problems the Bulldogs had two years ago with the center-QB exchange and the QB/back “mesh” operation. No one at The Citadel wants to see anything resembling a repeat of those days.
I am a little worried about the defense, particularly when it comes to that four-game stretch following the opener: Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, North Carolina State, and Chattanooga. The unit must be ready to compete at a high level for those games, but lacks starting experience in key areas. The front-loaded schedule could really hurt the Bulldogs.
Four of the five leading tacklers from last season are gone, although that in itself doesn’t bother me too much. It’s the amount of experience those four players had that is the real issue (last year’s three starting linebackers played in a combined 126 career games).
Then there is the loss of Derek Douglas for at least the first part of the season due to a knee injury. Many observers felt Douglas was the team’s best all-around player last season, a force on the d-line and an all-conference selection. He had 11 tackles for loss; only one other returning SoCon player had more (Wes Dothard of UTC). Douglas can’t return fast enough for the Bulldogs.
There is more talent coming back, however, including lineman Chris Billingslea, a true playmaker on the defensive side of the ball. Billingslea’s big-play capability (he always seems to be around the football) is something The Citadel needs from more of its defensive players; while solid, last season’s defense didn’t force quite enough negative plays, particularly turnovers (eighteen in eleven games).
There are a number of candidates to feature alongside Billingslea (and Douglas, when he returns) on the defensive line. I think the Bulldogs are in reasonably good shape with this group. The Citadel just needs two or three of them to assert themselves as major contributors, and quickly. It appears that at least two freshmen will get an opportunity to make an impact.
While the linebacking corps will feature three new starters, all three played last season and showed promise, including flashes of that big-play ability the Bulldogs need. However, there has been talk that they aren’t as athletic as the previous starters. Personally, I’m not overly concerned with their athleticism, as long as they can make game-changing plays that benefit The Citadel. Depth could be an issue, however, as there are fewer obvious options for this group than there are for the defensive line.
The secondary needs to improve on its interception totals (only six all last season). The lack of picks has been an ongoing problem. The Citadel was last in the league in passes intercepted in 2010 and next-to-last in 2011. Another issue that has occasionally bedeviled The Citadel is the “killer pass” from the opposition — not just long TD throws, but third-down conversion pickups that have allowed drives to continue.
The Citadel allowed opponents to complete 65.3% of their passes last season, the highest percentage allowed in the Higgins era. Opponents have completed at least 60% of their passes against the Bulldogs in each of the last four years, a far cry from the 52.7% completion rate allowed in 2007, The Citadel’s last winning campaign.
The Bulldogs were next-to-last in the league in defensive pass efficiency last season. To win more games, The Citadel has to do better than that in 2012.
Phil Steele recently released his FCS Special Teams rankings for the 2011 season. The Citadel, primarily thanks to its success in punting and returning (or rather, blocking) punts, finished first in the nation in his ratings. Only one other Southern Conference team finished in the top 30 (Georgia Southern was thirteenth).
The star performer for The Citadel’s special teams last season was punter Cass Couey, who was superb, leading the SoCon in punting average (43.0 yds) and net punting (38.2 yds). He’s also capable of tucking the ball under his arm and running for a first down if the opposition isn’t paying attention.
The Citadel also had a big edge when the other team punted, thanks to nine blocked punts. However, one of the NCAA’s rules changes for 2012 will force the Bulldogs to adjust at least part of their kick-blocking strategy:
There will…be a new rule prohibiting players from leaping over blockers in an attempt to block a punt. Receiving-team players trying to jump over a shield-blocking scheme has become popular for teams in punt formation. Receiving-team players try to defeat this scheme by rushing into the backfield to block a punt. In some cases, these players are contacted and end up flipping in the air and landing on their head or shoulders.
This change could be called the Domonic Jones Rule, as the rangy 6’5″ wide receiver blocked or deflected five punts last season by doing exactly what is described above. While the new rule may not favor The Citadel, in all honesty I think it’s a good change. Too many times I have watched a player land on his head or neck after leaping into a pair of shield blockers.
Kevin Higgins was on the committee that recommended the new rules changes, and he and his fellow panelists were busy. The kicking game drew special attention, and the Jones Rule wasn’t the only thing to be enacted:
[T]eams will kick off at the 35-yard line instead of the 30. Also, players on the kicking team can’t line up for the play behind the 30-yard line, which is intended to limit the running start kicking teams used to have during the play.
Also, touchbacks on free kicks will be moved to the 25-yard line instead of the 20 to encourage more touchbacks. Touchbacks on other plays (for example, punts that go into the end zone, or fumbles that go out of the end zone) will remain at the 20-yard line.
Those rule changes will affect The Citadel on kickoffs, an aspect of special teams the Bulldogs could improve upon. While the kickoff return unit was fine, The Citadel was seventh in the league in net kickoff coverage. A freshman is expected to be the Bulldogs’ kickoff specialist this fall. So far, reviews are good.
Reviews are also good for senior Thomas Warren, who becomes the starting placekicker this season. By all accounts, Warren has had an excellent preseason camp. Missed opportunities in the kicking game cost The Citadel a chance at winning both the Elon and Georgia Southern games last season, and as a result there is a lot of interest (if not angst) among fans about the placekicking unit. It should be pointed out, however, that it’s not all about the kicker. The holder, snapper, and blockers must all do their jobs too.
One thing The Citadel did very well last year was not commit penalties. In fact, the Bulldogs were the least-penalized team in the nation last season, both in terms of number (3.09 per game) and yardage (22.45 yds), which is to the credit of the players and the coaches. I like rooting for a team that doesn’t commit a lot of penalties.
Incidentally, another rules change for this season will particularly impact teams running the triple option:
Offensive players in the tackle box at the snap who are not in motion are allowed to block below the waist legally without restriction. All other players are restricted from blocking below the waist with a few exceptions (for example, straight-ahead blocks).
The Citadel’s opponent on Saturday, Charleston Southern, had a rough season last year. Actually, “rough” may be a nice way to put it, as the Buccaneers were 0-11. Charleston Southern started the season getting blitzed by two FBS opponents (Central Florida and Florida State) by a combined score of 124-10, and never really recovered.
The lowlight of the Bucs’ season was probably the 32-20 loss to Division III Wesley College, which came at CSU’s Homecoming. Charleston Southern lost close games to Jacksonville, VMI, Coastal Carolina, and Gardner-Webb, but also got bashed a few times, including a 30-point loss to Norfolk State and a 31-point defeat to Presbyterian in the season finale.
Non-FBS opponents averaged 35 points per game against the Bucs, and had success on the ground and in the air. CSU allowed 225 rushing yards per game, and 217 passing yards per contest.
Charleston Southern ranked last in the Big South in the following defensive categories: defensive pass efficiency, fumbles recovered, rushing defense, total defense, scoring defense, tackles for loss, sacks, and turnovers gained.
Offensively, CSU ranked last in the Big South in rushing offense and scoring offense. The Bucs were also the worst team in the league at returning kickoffs. On the bright side, Charleston Southern led the Big South in net punting and only lost seven fumbles.
It all added up to a winless season. CSU has now lost twelve straight and eighteen of its last nineteen games.
Charleston Southern has two quarterbacks battling for the starting spot; regardless of which player wins the job, he must improve upon last year’s pass completion percentage (45.7%). I mentioned earlier that CSU finished last in the Big South in rushing offense. In fact, the Bucs only averaged 2.6 yards per carry, and only two starters return on CSU’s offensive line. Charleston Southern quarterbacks were sacked 32 times last year.
The defense has a new coordinator, Shawn Quinn, who was Georgia Southern’s linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator last season. He has work to do. However, given his experience at GSU, he should have a very good idea of how to defend The Citadel’s triple option attack.
Charleston Southern is not completely bereft of experienced talent. Senior cornerback Charles James was selected as the preseason Big South Defensive Player of the Year. He must be an excellent player to receive that kind of accolade while playing for a team coming off an 0-11 campaign. James is a former walk-on who has ten career interceptions; he also made 66 tackles last season for the Bucs and is a fine punt returner as well, averaging just under ten yards per return last season (with one touchdown).
Junior wideout Nathan Perera caught 43 passes (four touchdowns) last season and joined James on the preseason All-Big South squad. Perera averaged over 16 yards per reception. However, he is questionable for the game against The Citadel due to injury.
The Buccaneers’ special teams were respectable in 2011, with the punting units in particular being very solid. However, CSU must replace its punter/placekicker this season.
Charleston Southern was picked to finish last in the Big South’s preseason poll. One of the eighteen voters did tip CSU to finish second, for reasons not immediately apparent.
This year’s Charleston Southern team is probably not as good as the Jacksonville squad that The Citadel faced in last year’s opener. However, the Bucs are likely better than 2010 opening-game opponent Chowan or the Presbyterian outfit the Bulldogs played in the 2009 home opener.
While CSU’s defense last year was porous, it will return seven starters, and that group doesn’t include UGA transfer Damian Dixon, who will likely start in the defensive backfield with Charles James. Add in to the mix a new defensive coordinator who is familiar with The Citadel’s offense, and the result is a unit that should be ready to compete against the Bulldogs.
On the other side of the ball, The Citadel has several players who will be starting for the first time, but the same is going to be true for CSU’s offense. It may be a good situation for the Bulldogs in that respect.
The Citadel should win this game. It probably won’t be a rout, but it ought to be decisive. Losing to the Buccaneers would be disastrous. The Bulldogs will struggle to salvage the rest of the 2012 campaign if they do not prevail on Saturday.
That is pressure. Then again, nobody goes to The Citadel to avoid pressure.
I can’t wait until Saturday.
Filed under: Football, The Citadel | Tagged: Cass Couey, Charles James, Charleston Southern, Chris Billingslea, Derek Douglas, Georgia Southern, Kevin Higgins, Mike Sellers, North Carolina State, Southern Conference, The Citadel | Leave a comment »