SPARTANBURG — A fifth-place finish last year and 16 returning starters were not enough to convince Southern Conference observers that Citadel football is ready for a big step up in coach Mike Houston’s second season.
The Bulldogs, 5-7 overall and 3-4 in the league last season, were picked to finish seventh in the eight-team league by both the SoCon coaches and media on Wednesday. Chattanooga was a near-unanimous pick to win a third straight league title.
“Preseason polls don’t matter,” Houston said at the SoCon’s season kickoff. “It’s the postseason polls that matter. We finished above where we were picked last year, and I’ve never had a team that didn’t. I sure don’t expect us to finish there. We’ll have our shot when we line up against all of them.”
Two teams that the Bulldogs defeated last season — Furman and Mercer — were picked ahead of The Citadel, Furman at fifth in the coaches’ poll and Mercer at sixth. Houston said the poll results could serve as motivation for his players, at least in the short term.
“For about five minutes,” he said. “But the thing that better motivate them is the guy lining up across from them on Saturdays.”
Chattanooga, 10-4 and 7-0 last season, received seven of eight first-place votes from the coaches and 29 of 30 from the media. Coach Russ Huesman’s team returns his son, senior quarterback Jacob Huesman, who was voted the preseason offensive player of the year.
Samford, with new coach Chris Hatcher, got the other first-place vote in the coaches’ poll. Western Carolina received one first-place vote in the media poll.
The Citadel had only two players make the preseason all-SoCon squad chosen by the coaches — offensive lineman Sam Frye and defensive lineman Mitchell Jeter, both on the first team.
Frye is a 5-10, 285-pound senior from Charlotte who played all 907 offensive snaps last season; Jeter is a 6-0, 285-pound senior from Rock Hill who had 10.5 tackles for loss last season.
Chattanooga’s Huesman was named preseason offensive player of the year, while Samford lineman Michael Pierce was named defensive player of the year. Pierce is the brother of Citadel sophomore linebacker Myles Pierce.
Citadel players will wear a special helmet sticker this season to honor the nine victims killed in the June shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
The sticker is the familiar likeness of the state flag with nine doves arising from the palmetto tree.
“Each player will have the opportunity to wear the sticker,” Houston said. “It’s our way of honoring the nine victims and a tragedy that turned into a story of Charleston really pulling together”
The Citadel has added two transfer players to its roster — quarterback Grant Drakeford, who redshirted as a freshman last year at Georgia State, and cornerback Mariel Cooper, who played at South Carolina state. Cooper, 5-11 and 181 pounds, is a grad-student transfer with one season of eligibility. He was a Shrine Bowl pick at Sumter High School and played for two MEAC championship teams at S.C. State.
The SoCon has tweaked its targeting rule for the 2015 season. Instant replay will be used at halftime for targeting penalties called in the first half, so that a call deemed incorrect does not cause a player to be ejected for the second half. Second-half penalties will be reviewed during the following week, as was done last season.
The league also has removed targeting penalties from the unsportsmanlike category that resulted in an automatic one-game suspension. Previously, a player ejected for targeting in the first half of a game would miss the second half of that game, plus the next game.