CITADEL KEY DATES

Key date

Aug. 10 – First day in pads

Aug. 11 – 1 p.m. Media day

Aug. 17 – 1 p.m. Scrimmage

Aug. 21 – 6 p.m. Scrimmage

Aug. 31 – 6 p.m. vs. CSU

When coaches called for the No. 1 defense at The Citadel’s opening football practice Monday morning, the trio of Carson Smith, Rah Muhammad and Carl Robinson manned the linebacker positions.

It was the first time that crew had been together on the field since the fifth game of last season, and a comforting sight for head coach Kevin Higgins.

“It was great to see them out there together,” Higgins said after the first of 29 preseason practices for the Bulldogs, who open the 2013 season Aug. 31 against Charleston Southern. “Not only are they good players, but excellent leaders.”

The trio of juniors helped the Bulldogs to a 3-0 start last year, but only Smith was able to make it through the entire 7-4 season. Robinson suffered a knee injury (torn ACL) during the fifth game against Chattanooga, and a leg injury (fractured fibula) ended Muhammad’s season the next week against Samford.

It’s no coincidence that the Bulldogs lost those two games and a third one against Wofford with a makeshift linebacking crew, giving up an average of 266 rushing yards and 30.3 points during a 1-3 stretch in midseason.

“It was tough,” said Robinson, a 6-1, 247-pounder from Irvington, Ala. “It was tough to see somebody have to take my spot, and then to see some things happen with the defense that made me want to be out there to help.

“But the support I got from the team really helped me get through it. They wanted me to be a part of every meeting, everything they did, and that meant a lot.”

Robinson missed spring practice while rehabbing his ACL, while Muhammad was able to participate on a limited basis.

“I’d been hurt before, but this was the first time I’d really been injured,” said Muhammad, a 5-11, 205-pounder from Gadsden, Ala. “It was a grind to get back, but I made it.”

Smith, a 6-2, 225-pounder from Simpsonville, led the Bulldogs in tackles with 91 last season. Robinson finished third with 54 tackles despite playing in only five games, an average of 10.8 per game. Muhammad had 46 tackles in his six games, averaging 7.7 per game.

The silver lining to the injuries was the late-season emergence of freshman James Riley, who made 43 tackles in the final four games. With Riley, now a 5-11, 210-pound sophomore, and talented freshman Tevin Floyd (6-1, 225) joining the rotation, the linebacker crew is as deep as it’s been in years.

“We’re battling now,” Muhammad said. “It increases the competition throughout the linebacking corps. James really blossomed last year. He’d come to us for advice, and it was great to see him take it and run with it.”

Smith, Robinson and Riley should rotate at the two inside linebacker spots, with the fleet Muhammad on the outside.

“They’ll all be on special teams as well,” Higgins said. “So over a 12-game season, we’re going to need that rotation to keep them as fresh as possible.”

Higgins wants his defense to perform better against the run this season — the Bulldogs ranked seventh in the SoCon in run defense last year, allowing 221.7 yards per game — and the linebackers will be a big part of that.

“Tackling better is what it boils down to,” Muhammad said. “Coach said the defense missed 89 tackles last year, and that’s definitely not good. We’ve got to improve that.”

Notes

Sophomore defensive lineman Joe Phillips, a backup end, did not report to school due to family issues, Higgins said, and freshman quarterback Jantzen Jeffrey has left school.

Defensive assistant Chad Wheeler left The Citadel to take over as head coach at James Island Christian Academy, he said.

With sophomore Sam Frye starting at center, redshirt freshman Harrison Davis has been moved from backup center to tackle. Freshman Ryan Bednar, moved over from defense, will get a chance to earn the backup center job.

Higgins said punters Eric Goins and Austin Jordan have made strides since the spring game — but backup QB Aaron Miller was spied practicing rugby-style punts.