The Citadel Bulldogs — a whole lot of Bulldogs, as a matter of fact — began spring football practice on Wednesday.
Coach Brent Thompson says he'll have as many as 92 players on the field for practice this spring, an unusually high number that bodes well for a program trying to return to the heights of Southern Conference championships in 2015 and 2016.
"Usually, if we were in the mid-to-high 80s, we'd be in pretty good shape," said Thompson, whose fourth Citadel team went 6-6 overall and 4-4 in the SoCon last season. "So having 91 or 92 guys is a good high number. That speaks to the fact that we are retaining players.
"For the first time in two or three years, I feel like our roster is in a good place. We've retained better, recruiting a different player who is able to be more sustainable, and we've been able to build a little more depth. And when you build depth around here, you have a chance to win championships."
As the Bulldogs work toward the March 7 spring game (on the school's Summerall Field), here are five areas to keep an eye on.
1. Who's that at quarterback?
Fear not, Citadel fans, starter Brandon Rainey is back for his fifth season after accounting for 30 touchdowns a year ago. But Thompson hopes to limit Rainey's work during the spring with an eye toward keeping him healthy and developing younger players.
With redshirt freshman Evan Schickel out for the spring after shoulder surgery, Thompson plans to move defensive back Jaylan Adams to quarterback. Younger players such as redshirt freshman Cooper Wallace and Nathan Cronic also should get plenty of work.
Junior receiver Ryan McCarthy, who played quarterback last spring, is playing baseball only this season, starting in the outfield for the Bulldogs.
2. Right side of the line
The Citadel returns three-fifths of its starting line in left tackle Prince Howard-Whitaker, left guard Jonathan Toole and center Haden Haas. But the right side is a different matter, with all-SoCon guard Drew McEntyre and tackle Denzel Wright, who each started every game last season, lost to graduation.
Rising sophomore Ben Brockington (6-1, 278) is a candidate for right tackle, and sophomore Tereis Drayton (6-2, 280) could be moved from his backup center role. Senior Jon Barrett Lewis (6-2, 295), sophomore Stephon Stokes (6-2, 295) and junior Thomas Crawford (6-3, 230) also should be in the mix.
"Who can play right tackle and right guard?" Thompson asked. "We've got our ideas, and we're going to mix and match some offensive lines and see where we are."
3. Skill positions
All-SoCon receiver Raleigh Webb, who averaged 20.6 yards and scored 10 TDs on 30 catches last season, also is back for his fifth season. But like Rainey, he's likely to see limited action in the spring.
And with No. 2 receiver Ryan McCarthy playing baseball, the path is open for some young receivers to show their wares. Redshirt junior Cameron Roberts is the only other returning receiver to catch a pass last season.
In the backfield, the fullback group is deep, led by returning starter Clay Harris and backups Logan Billings and Emeka Nwanze. The slotback group loses top producer Remus Bulmer, but returns veterans such as Dante Smith, Nkem Njoku and Keyonte Sessions.
4. Defensive front
Defensive coordinator Tony Grantham loses all-SoCon tackle Joseph Randolph II, and replacing his production will be difficult. Younger linemen such as Dewey Greene IV (6-3, 245) and Jay Smith (6-1, 270) got experience last season and should be ready to step up alongside nose tackle Dalton Owens (6-2, 302), who had 8½ tackles for loss and 3½ sacks last season.
Rising junior Marquise Blount is back after a groin injury cost him the final four games of the 2019 season. SoCon defensive player of the year Willie Eubanks III returns at one inside linebacker, but the other inside spot loses both Airan Reed and Phil Davis.
5. Here's the kicker
There are no placekickers on the roster this spring, with incoming freshmen Colby Kinter and Ben Steele due to report in the fall.
That means the burden will fall on all-SoCon punter Matt Campbell, who will both punt and kick this spring.
- The spring game will be played at noon March 7 at Summerall Field on campus while artificial turf is being installed at Johnson Hagood Stadium ... Assistant coach Bobby Ruff has been moved from tight ends/tackles coach back to defense as inside linebackers coach.
- The Citadel has yet to add a graduate transfer for the 2020 season, but Thompson has not ruled out adding one or two ... "I want to leave that option open to us, but it would be limited to one or two," he said. "We may have some positions we need to fill in, and last year our two transfers (slotback Remus Bulmer and linebacker Airan Reed) were very good for us."
- Preferred walk-ons added during the signing period were defensive backs Noah Alberry (5-11, 175, Dorman HS), Dylan Lyds (5-10, 192, Easley HS) and Joseph Poole (6-2, 175, St. Joseph's Catholic HS); offensive linemen Zach Blanchard (6-2, 285, Clover HS) and Connor Nickles (5-11, 255, Abbeville HS); linebackers Jackson Dorris (6-1, 200, Southside Christian HS) and Hayden Johnson (5-11, 185, Clover HS); defensive linemen Ethan June (6-3, 255, Hilton Head Christian); and Nathan Storch (6-0, 230, Dorman HS); and long snapper Alex Shirley (6-0, 215, Eastside HS).