CHARLESTON, S.C. (CIT) - The Citadel opened its 2013 spring football practice Friday afternoon at the Willson Practice Field, beginning one month of drills before playing their annual spring game, sponsored by Coke Zero, at Johnson Hagood Stadium on Saturday, March 9 at 1 p.m.
Below is a look at The Citadel football team and its personnel heading into spring practice.
A young Citadel football team began to come of age a year ago. The challenge in 2013 will be to continue its climb to the top of the Southern Conference and return to the NCAA playoffs for the first time in two decades.
The Bulldogs spent seven weeks ranked in The Sports Network Top 25, reaching as high as No. 10 following early-season victories over playoff qualifiers Georgia Southern and Appalachian State. After a midseason slump, The Citadel ran off three straight wins to end the season, including road triumphs against longtime rivals VMI and Furman, to finish 7-4 overall and 5-3 in the SoCon for its first winning overall and league marks since 2007.
The steady offensive improvement in its third season in the triple option attack along with a continued emphasis on limiting mistakes was the catalyst for The Citadel's success a year ago. The Bulldogs averaged 300.6 rushing yards per game, the fourth-highest mark in the nation, while leading the country for the second straight year in fewest penalties (3.8) and fewest penalty yards (29.6) per game.
Most of the personnel that spearheaded the offense will be back this fall, including a pair of experienced quarterbacks, a 1,000-yard rusher at B-back and all five starters on the offensive line.
"One thing we will be looking to accomplish this spring is the expansion of our offense," said head coach Kevin Higgins, who is entering his ninth season at The Citadel and was a finalist for the Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year Award last fall. "We will add several shotgun packages and continue to invest in the passing game."
Meanwhile, the defense had to overcome the loss of an all-conference tackle for the early portion of the year and then was hit by season-ending injuries to a pair of starting linebackers midway through the season. But the silver lining was the emergence of three true freshmen who made their mark on the Bulldog defensive unit.
"From a defensive standpoint we'd like to become more proficient at stopping the run, an area we had issues with last year," said Higgins. "We want to become better with our technique and responsibilities, especially among the front seven."
It's almost redundant to say that The Citadel faces a difficult schedule in 2013. Any school that plays in the perennially tough Southern Conference can say the same thing. But added to that slate will be a game at Old Dominion to face a Monarch team which not only made a playoff run last year but returns the Walter Payton Award winner in prolific quarterback Taylor Heinicke.
Following is a position-by-position look at The Citadel Bulldogs entering spring practice which will culminate with the annual spring game at Johnson Hagood Stadium on Saturday, March 9.
Ben Dupree has started 24 straight games and will again team with Aaron Miller to give the Bulldogs a pair of experienced and talented signal callers. Dupree rushed for 839 yards for an average of 76.3 per game to rank ninth in the SoCon to go along with a team-leading nine touchdowns last season. He also continued his development as a passer, completing 25 of 45 passes for 387 yards and three scores.
Dupree enters his senior season with a career total of 1,671 rushing yards to rank 17th in school history while his 18 rushing touchdowns places him 11th.
Miller passed for 513 yards during his sophomore season, the most since The Citadel went to the triple option, completing 34 of 69 attempts and averaging 15.1 yards per completion. His strong arm and running style makes him an ideal complement to the speedy and elusive Dupree.
Redshirt freshman Trey White was on the travel squad last season. The opportunity to sit in on all the quarterback meetings while helping run the scout team was an invaluable asset in his development.
While the Bulldogs are set as far as the starter is concerned, there is little depth at this position. Darien Robinson enjoyed an outstanding junior season, rushing for 1,007 yards while going over the 100-yard mark six times. He ranked seventh in the SoCon and 39th in the nation with an average of 91.5 yards per game and was selected the team's offensive player of the year.
When Robinson needs a breather, help will need to come from a group that may include slot backs Vinny Miller and Dalton Trevino as well as returning backup Shaunn Middleton.
This position is the biggest concern for the coaching staff entering the spring with the departure of mainstays Rickey Anderson and VanDyke Jones, a duo which combined to rush for 2,102 yards during their careers.
Rising senior Terrance Martin is the most experienced of the returning slot backs, having played in 32 of 33 games the past three seasons with 553 career rushing yards. This will be an important spring for him as he looks to take the next step to being a fulltime starter. Dalton Trevino will be back for the spring after undergoing offseason knee surgery.
Vinny Miller showed that he can be an explosive runner in his limited carries as a freshman last season, rushing for 144 yards and scored three touchdowns on only 21 attempts. Jake Stenson came on strong last year and could also be a factor along with redshirt freshman Te'Myrick Mosley, whom the coaches need to get a good evaluation on this spring.
Matt Thompson emerged as a big play receiver in his first season at the position and should be a fixture in the starting lineup. He averaged nearly 22 yards on each of his 13 catches as a junior, including three for 123 and a touchdown against Appalachian State. Thompson has gotten bigger and stronger, and his athleticism makes him a matchup problem for opposing secondaries.
Brandon Eakins played in all 11 games on special teams and as a reserve wide receiver as a redshirt freshman. Julian Walker, a true freshman last year and the scout team player of the year, was recruited as a quarterback but has been moved to wide receiver to take better advantage of his talents.
Offensive Line/Tight Ends
The most experienced position on this year's team will be the offensive line, a unit that returns all five starters and a total of five fifth-year players including Devin Bice, Cullen Brown, Keith Carter, Robert Finke and Jim Knowles.
The anchor of the offensive line is center Mike Sellers, who last year as a junior became only the fourth player in Citadel history to earn consensus first team All-America honors. In addition to his national accolades, Sellers was the recipient of the Jacobs Blocking Award as the top offensive lineman in the SoCon.
Flanking Sellers at the guard positions last year were Carter and Knowles. Carter started 19 straight games at left guard after moving over from the defensive line in 2011 before suffering a torn Achilles against Wofford last year. His health has improved a great deal, but he will still sit out spring practice.
Knowles is entrenched at right guard after starting 21 of 22 games at that spot the past two years. Bice (left tackle) and Brown (right tackle) are back for their second year as starters. Brown was a tight end his first three years at The Citadel before the coaching staff moved him to tackle shortly before the 2012 season opener.
Two redshirt freshmen - Harrison Davis and Kyle Weaver - will get a close look this spring as they begin their quest for a spot on the travel squad in the fall. Davis is a versatile player who can line up anywhere on the offensive front.
Alex Glover moved into the starting tight end role after Brown switched to tackle and is atop the depth chart entering the spring. There is no other experienced tight end on the current roster.
The Citadel boasts good depth along the defensive line but needs to replace longtime starter and two-time All-SoCon performer Chris Billingslea. The Bulldogs will have the benefit of a full season from defensive tackle Derek Douglas and have another experienced player in fellow fifth-year senior Bay Amrhein.
Douglas was the team's MVP in 2011 but sustained a torn ACL last spring and missed the early portion of the 2012 campaign. He was solid in his return to the field, recording five sacks, and starred in a win over rival VMI with two sacks and a fumble return for his first career touchdown.
Amrhein became a starter for the first time in his career last season and responded with 32 tackles.
While Douglas and Amrhein represent the veteran presence on the defensive line, a host of younger players will play integral roles. Leading the way are projected starters Mitchell Jeter at nose tackle and Joe Phillips at end, both of whom played as true freshmen last year.
Jeter played in a reserve role the first seven weeks of the season before moving into the starting lineup. He had a total of 28 tackles with four sacks and got better and better as the season progressed, earning a spot on the SoCon All-Freshman squad. Phillips saw most of his action on special teams but got some experience as a reserve defensive end.
Behind the top four are four other players who were part of the rotation in 2012. Justin Oxendine faces an important spring in his development and needs to get more passionate in order to compete in the trenches. He is an athlete who can play both inside and outside. Colin Parsons has gotten bigger and stronger and will be in the mix along with Cam Mobley, who will sit out the spring after undergoing ankle surgery.
Mark Thomas was one of the pleasant surprises of the 2012 season after the coaches had originally planned on letting him redshirt. He showed that he can be a disruptive force as a pass rusher, making six sacks on just nine total tackles, and was also named to the SoCon All-Freshman team. With additional weight and experience, he has a chance to be a special player.
Redshirt freshman Austin Harrell came to The Citadel as a linebacker but was moved to the defensive line where he can line up as either an end or tackle. He gained 20 pounds since enrolling and was an excellent scout team performer in the fall. The coaches are excited about his future.
Injuries wreaked havoc with this position last year with Carl Robinson and Rah Muhammad going down for the season in consecutive weeks. Both will be back on the field this fall although Robinson will miss the spring while continuing his rehab from a torn ACL.
At the time of his injury against Chattanooga, Robinson was well ahead of any other Bulldog defender with 54 tackles, and his average of 10.8 per game would have ranked him fourth in the SoCon had he been able to maintain that pace the remainder of the season.
Muhammad was also having a solid sophomore season with 46 tackles when he suffered a broken ankle in week six against Samford. He has shown some lingering effects of the injury and will not be 100 percent in the spring but is expected to participate.
One silver lining that emerged from the injuries to Robinson and Muhammad was the opportunity for true freshman James Riley to show what he could do. Riley's debut came in a starting role against Wofford and he responded with 12 tackles and a sack. He added two other double figure games and finished his abbreviated season with 43 to earn a spot on the SoCon All-Freshman team.
Joe Crochet and Preston Durham, two youngsters who redshirted last year, will have a chance to showcase their abilities this fall as will Brandon Staton, who was the defensive scout team player of the year.
The Citadel returns starting cornerbacks Brandon McCladdie and Sadath Jean-Pierre, both fifth-year players, and a pair of safeties who split the starting role last season in Julian Baxter and Nick Willis.
McCladdie was named to the All-SoCon second team by the media after a junior season which saw him make 45 tackles, pick off two passes, break up four others and force three fumbles. He is also a stellar student and was selected to the FCS Athletic Directors Association Academic All-Star team.
Jean-Pierre moved into the starting lineup last season and enjoyed an outstanding year, ranking second on the team with 80 tackles, including 65 solo stops, and breaking up five passes.
Veteran Walker Smith has been a valuable special teams player during his career and will get a chance to play more in the secondary this season while redshirt freshman Cody Richardson has a chance to be a very good player.
Willis started the first seven games as a true freshman last season while Baxter was battling through injuries and had 38 tackles and an interception. Baxter wound up playing in 10 games with four late-season starts and had 40 tackles and a pick. With the departure of Austin and Davis Boyle, both Willis and Baxter are slated to man the safety spots in 2013.
Also looking to move up into a fulltime role at safety this season will be veteran backup Akeem Garnett and redshirt freshman Dondray Copeland, who was named the special teams scout team player of the year.
For the first time since 2008, someone other than Cass Couey will handle the punting duties for the Bulldogs. Couey had an outstanding career at The Citadel, ranking second in school history with an average of 40.9 yards per punt and was a third team All-American in 2011.
The battle for his replacement should come down to Austin Jordan, who handled the kickoff duties last year, and redshirt freshman Eric Goins. This spring will go a long way to determining who will have an edge going into fall camp.
There are no such concerns at kicker with the return of Thomas Warren. The fifth-year senior won the job last season and connected on all 43 of his extra point attempts and 9 of 15 field goal tries. He solidified his place in Bulldog football lore with his 37-yard field goal with 35 seconds remaining to give The Citadel a dramatic 23-21 win over No. 3-ranked Georgia Southern.
Austin Wiles returns as the long snapper but a new holder to replace Couey must be found.
Greg Adams handled punt return duties the past two years, and his departure leaves that open heading into the spring. Julian Walker and Matt Thompson have gotten most of the work during the offseason.
The loss of Keith Gamble as the primary kickoff returner also leaves a job available. Vinny Miller, who returned six kicks in 2012, and Terrance Martin appear to have a slight edge to take over that role.