Citadel vs. Chattanooga

Head coach Brent Thompson won a SoCon championship in his first year at The Citadel. What will he do for an encore? (File/Michael Pronzato/Staff)

In his first try at being a head football coach, The Citadel's Brent Thompson won 10 games and a Southern Conference title last year.

What does the winningest rookie coach in school history do for an encore?

"I joke all the time that I contemplated retirement," said Thompson. "But I couldn't figure out how I was going to do it."

With retirement not an option, Thompson will settle for building on the winning formula that he and Mike Houston brought to The Citadel from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne in 2014. The Bulldogs won the first of two straight SoCon championships in 2015; after Houston bolted for James Madison (and won the 2016 FCS national title), Thompson moved to head coach from offensive coordinator and led The Citadel to a 10-2 record and another championship.

It was about as smooth a transfer as a program can hope for. But for Thompson, who never had to concern himself with much more than the quarterback-fullback mesh during his years as an offensive coordinator, the change was dramatic.

"You have a lot more impact on the cadet student-athlete, that's for sure," said Thompson, the SoCon coach of the year in 2016. "As a coordinator, I was in charge of the offense, but it was really just my position group as far as they daily lives were concerned.

"But now there's 120 guys on the roster, 16 coaches, all the staff members. That's 140 or 150 people you are directly impacting with every decision you make, and that's one of the hardest things to do."

Thompson's had to widen his scope to consider what's best for the program instead of what's best for his offense. He had to handle difficult situations in the off-season with the dismissal of three starter-level players.

"You have to take yourself out of it," he said. "You can't be selfish with offense or defense, with staff vs. players. And then you have to consider how the program fits in to the school and the Corps of Cadets, especially at a unique place like The Citadel."

The fun part, Thompson said, has been getting close with defensive players he barely knew before.

"Guys like Kailik Williams, Myles Pierce, Jonathan King, they come in my office a lot more now," he said. "Before, they didn't really know who I was, but now they come in and hang out. It's a lot more rewarding that way."

Thompson faces the challenge of sustaining success. An offense that led the FCS in rushing returns senior quarterback Dominique Allen and senior slotback Cam Jackson, one of the top play-makers in the SoCon. But the offensive line must replace four seniors, including tackle Isaiah Pinson, who won the league's Jacobs Blocking Award last year.

The fullback is usually the leading rusher in the triple-option offense. That's another question mark as converted quarterback Brandon Rainey and true freshman Brandon Berry vie to replace All-American Tyler Renew, in camp with the Atlanta Falcons.

There are fewer holes to fill on a defense that was third in the SoCon in scoring, total and rushing defense last year. SoCon defensive player of the year Kailik Williams is back at the "rover" safety spot. Linebacker Myles Pierce and defensive linemen Ken Allen and Jonathan King are preseason all-SoCon picks, and the secondary has plenty of experience even with the transfer of All-American cornerback Dee Delaney to Miami.

When Houston and Thompson arrived at The Citadel in 2014, the Bulldogs had two winning seasons in the last 15, and had not won a SoCon title since 1992. Three years later, the identity and culture of Citadel football has changed.

But as Thompson is learning, a head coach has to prove it again every year.

"We have a lot to live up to," he said. "We think we've changed the culture, and we hope we have. But this senior class and this season will be pivotal in proving that we have."

Reach Jeff Hartsell at 843-967-5596. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_fromthePC