As Citadel linebackers posed for their position photo at media day Sunday, they picked up junior Carson Smith and held him in front of them, careful not to ding his dislocated right ankle.
Two days removed from the injury that ended the All-Southern Conference linebacker’s season before it began, the Bulldogs were able to smile and laugh for the camera. But they know full well how difficult it will be to replace Smith’s production on the field and leadership in the locker room.
“It’s a blow,” junior linebacker Rah Muhammad said Sunday. “It hurts, and it hurts a lot. But we have guys who can step up and lead and make plays, and now they will have to.”
After season-ending injuries to Muhammad (ankle) and Carl Robinson (knee) last year, the Bulldogs had their starting trio of linebackers together for less than a week of preseason practice before Smith injured his ankle Friday, the first day of practice in full pads. He was on crutches Sunday at Johnson Hagood Stadium and will undergo surgery this week after the swelling around his ankle subsides.
“It’s very disappointing,” said Smith, a 6-2, 225-pounder who led the Bulldogs in tackles last season. “We finally had our three ’backers together again, and we’ve got a great looking team this season. For this to happen now, it’s tough. But at the same time, I feel like I’m a leader on this team, so I’m not going to be down about it. That won’t do anything for anybody. My goal is to be positive about everything, and now I’ll try to lead from a different point of view.”
Linebackers coach Aashon Larkins said his group will miss Smith but must press on.
“We addressed the situation, and then we lay it to bed,” Larkins said. “There’s not anything we can do about it. We’ve just got to keep going.”
One silver lining: Smith can take a medical redshirt season and play two more years, if he chooses to.
Another: Linebacker is one of the deeper positions on the squad, and more able to absorb the loss of a key player.
The plan was for Smith and Robinson, a 6-1, 235-pound junior, to rotate in the two inside linebacker spots with sophomore James Riley. Now, the three-man rotation is likely to be Robinson, Riley and 6-1, 225-pound freshman Tevin Floyd of Tallahassee, Fla.
Riley, 5-11 and 210 pounds, took off his redshirt last year after the injuries to Robinson and Muhammad and made 43 tackles over the last four games. Floyd has shown enough in the first week of practice to encourage his coaches.
“James did a nice job last year,” head coach Kevin Higgins said. “And he’s a guy who we didn’t think would play for at least a year, so that really helps us now. And we can already tell that Tevin will have the opportunity to be a very good player. He’s bigger than most of these guys as a freshman and he runs pretty well. So it’s just a matter of him learning the system and learning The Citadel.”
After sitting out the first seven games last year, Riley made his debut in a 24-21 loss to Wofford and sparkled with a team-high 12 tackles, including three for loss and a sack. He followed that up with 11 tackles and half of a sack against Elon, eight stops against VMI and 12 tackles against Furman. The Citadel won all three games to finish 7-4.
“James is one of those guys you just try not to mess up,” Larkins said. “You teach him the schemes, help him get lined up and then let him do what he does. And Tevin Floyd is very similar, fast and athletic and physical.”
Riley said he’s ready for a larger role.
“Hopefully, we can all step up and play our best,” he said. “That’s what it’s going to take.”
Outside linebacker Joe Crochet (6-2, 200) has moved to defensive end, Higgins said. And OLB Preston Durham (6-0, 205) has been moved back inside to provide some depth after Smith’s injury.
Walk-on freshman Boeing Brown was added to the 95-man roster and has begun practicing. He will start out at receiver (he played quarterback and receiver in high school) and will redshirt this year, Higgins said.
Redshirt freshman Cody Richardson has stepped up as the No. 3 cornerback behind fifth-year seniors Brandon McCladdie and Sadath Jean-Pierre, Higgins said. Versatile junior Akeem Garnett (6-3, 215) banged knees with a teammate in practice last week, but was not seriously hurt. He’s had a good week of practice and is working at OLB and safety.
QB Ben Dupree is No. 1 at punt returner, with Richardson behind him. Freshman Devan Robbins and fellow slotbacks Dalton Trevino and Vinny Miller are working at kickoff return.