Who: The Citadel (2-4, 2-2) at Georgia Southern (3-2, 1-2)
When: Saturday, 1 p.m.
Where: Paulson Stadium, Statesboro, Ga.
Radio: WQNT 1450-AM
Justin Oxendine sat in The Citadel’s McAlister Field House last Friday, holding a small box in his lap.
In the box was a ring — his Citadel ring.
“I wanted so badly to rip it open, to put that ring on my finger and run to my mom and give her the biggest hug in the world,” said Oxendine, a senior from Sumter. “It was just an overflow of emotions, thinking of all the people — my mother, my father, my brother — who helped me get to that point.”
Oxendine was one of 17 Citadel football players to receive their rings, the culmination of four years at the military school and a symbol of accomplishment and brotherhood for Citadel grads.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Oxendine — a 6-3, 255-pound defensive end known fittingly as “Ox” — played one of the best games of his career the next day in a 31-28 win over Appalachian State.
Oxendine had four tackles, including a tackle for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. The Citadel was down 14-7 in the first half when Oxendine knifed into the backfield and stripped the ball away from quarterback Kam Bryant. Oxendine fell on the ball at the App State 25-yard line, setting up a short drive for a tying touchdown.
Many of Oxendine’s friends and family in the Parents Day crowd of more than 13,000 at Johnson Hagood Stadium were watching him play college football for the first time.
“To have them there, to have them see me make plays and hear my name called on the PA speaker, it was an amazing feeling,” he said.
For the season, Oxendine has 30 tackles in six games, including a team-best seven tackles for loss, ranking third in the Southern Conference.
Those are the kinds of plays Citadel coaches have anticipated from Oxendine since he arrived at The Citadel in 2010. They’ve been a little longer coming than the coaches and Oxendine would like.
“It’s taken him a little while to get acclimated to life at The Citadel, and sometimes that happens,” said Bulldogs coach Kevin Higgins. “But this year, you can see him coming into his own. He’s more confident in his technique and he’s playing at a higher level than before.”
A self-confessed “thinker,” Oxendine says he’s been slowed at times by a fear of making mistakes. That fear didn’t allow him to use his obvious athletic gifts.
“Sometimes I can think myself into a hole,” said Oxendine, who is majoring in sports management and administration. “I was afraid of making mistakes instead of just going out and playing.
“I don’t like people screaming at me, so I would play a little tentative. I’d try to just do what I was supposed to instead of playing football and having fun.”
Football was fun when Oxendine began playing in seventh grade, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Carrson, who played as a 6-3, 280-pound defensive end at Winston-Salem State.
At Sumter High School, Justin was his team’s defensive MVP and led the Gamecocks to the state title game in 2009. He was recruited to The Citadel by former Bulldogs great Everette Sands, now an assistant at USC.
“When your family falls in love with a guy,” Oxendine said of Sands, “it’s hard to say no.”
Guided by former teammates and mentors such as Rickey Anderson, Sherrod Croom and Chris Billingslea, Oxendine had to reach a place where his grades were in order and his place in the Corps of Cadets was secure before he could play his best football.
“My adjustment period might have been longer than I expected, or the coaches expected,” he said. “But this year, I’m playing freer. I don’t have other things in my head that I’m thinking about.”
And that’s good news for Citadel football. Oxendine, who redshirted as a freshman in 2010, plans to return next season for a fifth year.
With that Citadel ring on his finger, he’ll have little to worry about but football.
“He’s got all the physical tools,” Higgins said. “If he continues to develop like he is now, he can be a really good player, an all-Southern Conference type of guy.”
Follow Jeff Hartsell on Twitter at @jeff_fromthepc