Who: The Citadel (3-6, 3-4) at Elon (2-7, 1-4)
When: 1:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Rhodes Stadium, Elon, N.C.
As Vinny Miller took a handoff in Saturday’s win over Samford, the announcers on ESPN3 reminisced about his short-lived stint as a Citadel punt returner.
“That was a mistake,” said color analyst Paul Maguire, an ex-Citadel player. “They scrapped that idea,” agreed play-by-play man Darren Goldwater.
Indeed, the two punts Miller dropped in the Bulldogs’ season-opener to Charleston Southern – both of which led to touchdowns – were the key plays in The Citadel’s 32-29 loss, an upset that got a season of high expectations off to a bad start.
In the aftermath of that game, Bulldogs coach Kevin Higgins was worried about how Miller, a sophomore from North Augusta, would handle the situation.
“I was real concerned,” Higgins said Monday. “I would say 90 percent of college guys would have a hard time coming back from that. But I remember talking to him on that Monday. He looked at me like, ‘Coach, I’m fine, don’t worry about me.’ And he’s just gone on from there.”
Battling minor injuries throughout the season, Miller did not make a real statistical impact until last week’s 28-26 win over Samford. With a “speed sweep” installed to get the ball to the perimeter of Samford’s “Bear” defensive front, Miller carried 14 times for 95 yards and a touchdown. He pushed the pile for about 10 extra yards on a 28-yard run in the second quarter, and scored on an eight-yard run for a 21-17 lead in the third.
“The way I looked at it, I had 24 hours to get that first game out of my system,” said Miller, who is The Citadel’s third-leading rusher with 266 yards and two touchdowns. “And not just for me, but for my team. I had to move on and realize that I have other roles that are important to the team.
“If I couldn’t do well at one, then we’re a team and we’ll find somebody else who can do it, and I can focus on the rest of my goals.”
The Citadel eventually settled on freshman DeAndre Schoultz as the punt-returner, and Miller has focused on his job as a runner, blocker and passc-catcher at slotback. But in the triple-option offense, it can be hard for a slotback to make a consistent statistical impact.
In the triple-option, most of the carries go to the quarterback and the fullback. Ben Dupree and Darien Robinson each have 136 carries this season, accounting for 60 percent of The Citadel’s carries and 60.2 percent of the rushing yards.
Miller’s 14 carries against Samford were almost as many as he had in the seven previous games combined (15). That’s a big adjustment for a player who ran for 2,704 yards and 40 touchdowns at North Augusta High School – in his senior season alone.
“When you step into the triple option, there are certain things you have to acknowledge,” Higgins said. “And it takes some guys longer than other ones. We’re trying to recruit guys who understand the team concept and can see the big picture, and Vinny certainly does that.”
Still, a running back wants to run the ball, and Miller’s slotback group would love to see more game plans like last week’s.
“We finally got a chance to run the ball,” he said. “So each chance we got, we wanted to run as hard as we could, to prove we’re here for a reason.”
• The Citadel’s game Saturday at Elon will be the last between the squads as Southern Conference rivals. Elon leaves next season to join the Colonial Athletic Association. The Phoenix are 2-7 overall and 1-4 in the SoCon aftern an open date last week. They lost by 27-24 in overtime to Western Carolina in their last game, on Oct.26.
• QB Ben Dupree and fullback Darien Robinson, both seniors, are climbing The Citadel’s career rushing charts. Robinson is No. 5 with 2,735 yards, just behind No. 4 Andrew Johnson (2,792 from 1973-76). Dupree is No. 7 at 2,345 yards. Neither will be able to crack the top three, however: No. 3 Jack Douglas (3,908 yards), No. 2 Everette Sands (3,926 yards) and No. 1 Stump Mitchell (4,062 yards).
Follow Jeff Hartsell on Twitter @jeff_fromthepc