When Carson Smith rolled his left ankle last week in practice, The Citadel linebacker could not help but have a flashback.

It was almost exactly a year ago that Carson suffered a fractured right ankle that would cost him the entire 2013 season.

"There was a little bit right in that moment, that feeling of 'Uh-oh,' said Smith, a junior from Simpsonville. "But as soon as I stood up and walked it off, I knew it was no problem. I've just been icing it and doing some stretching as well. But it's fine."

Smith soon returned to practice, and the return of the 6-2, 230-pounder this season bolsters a linebacking corps that should be the strength of The Citadel's defense, if not the entire team.

Smith led the Bulldogs in tackles in 2012 with 91 as a sophomore. In his absence last season, senior linebacker Carl Robinson (6-1, 245) led The Citadel with 92 tackles.

That gives defensive coordinator Maurice Drayton the top tacklers from the last two seasons as his starting inside linebackers. And they are backed up by a pair of proven talents in junior James Riley and sophomore Tevin Floyd.

Riley (5-11, 215) started 11 games last year and was second on the team with 76 tackles. Floyd (6-1, 230) played in 12 games with one start, made 38 tackles and showed a nose for the ball with two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.

"I feel like it's one of the strongest areas on the team," said Smith, whose father Kelly played football at Furman. "We have four guys who have all started at one time or another, and we have a lot of experience.

"I feel like we'll be really strong back there. We'll be able to rotate and keep people fresh, and that could be really instrumental for our defense."

Smith's savvy should help the defense make the transition from the "read and react" side of the spectrum to the "attacking" side.

"Our scouting report on Carson when we got here was that he was highly intelligent and disciplined, almost like a quarterback on the field for the defense," head coach Mike Houston said. "And that's exactly what he has been."

Said Smith, "The intensity, the speed, the physicality is different now on defense. We're not waiting for the ball carrier; we're getting into their territory and getting in there fast."

With a steel plate and six screws on the outside of his ankle and one long screw on the inside, Smith still goes to rehab every morning before practice "just to loosen it up. But there are no problems, no pain. I feel great."

And for the Bulldogs, that's great news.