Only one football coach in Citadel history has begun his Bulldogs tenure with a better debut season than Brent Thompson did in 2016.
That coach was the late Dr. Ralph Foster, whose 1906 team didn't give up a point while going a perfect 3-0 against College of Charleston, Mercer and Porter Military Academy. Not bad for a guy who coached the Bulldogs while also attending the Medical School of Charleston, eventually leaving The Citadel with a three-year record of 8-6-2 to become a doctor.
Thompson's 10-2 record and Southern Conference championship in 2016 marks The Citadel's best coaching debut since Foster's reign, but the fourth-year coach has backed that up with middling marks of 5-6 in each of the last two seasons.
He's not going to med school, so it's time for the Bulldogs to return to SoCon contention, said Thompson, who is now 20-14 at The Citadel after taking over for his former boss, Mike Houston.
"I told the team the other day, the last two years are not where we want to be," said Thompson, whose 2018 team went 4-4 in the SoCon, good for fifth place. "It's not what we are capable of doing. We are capable of being a 10-win team here, if not more.
"To be honest, we knew we had a rebuild to go through after that 2016 season. There's no easy way to rebuild from The Citadel except from the ground up, and I finally feel that's where the roster is at right now. We've got enough older guys on the roster, and I love the leadership on this roster. I think we're back to where we can at least compete like we did back in 2016."
The chances of The Citadel competing for what would be the fifth SoCon title in school history would seem to hinge on two questions. Can the offense pick up where it left off in the final four games of 2018 under quarterback Brandon Rainey? And can new defensive coordinator Tony Grantham's 3-4 alignment improve a defense that allowed 30.3 points per game last season, ranking sixth out of nine SoCon teams?
Rainey, now a junior, averaged 132.2 yards per game rushing while leading the Bulldogs to a 3-1 record in the final four games last season. The Citadel scored 38, 42 and 43 points in its final three FCS games of the season; that average of 41 points would have been good enough to win all but one FCS game (Towson) last season.
With four of five starters back on the offensive line, including preseason All-SoCon picks Haden Haas and Drew McEntyre, and returning receivers Raleigh Webb and Ryan McCarthy joining Rainey, the offense has plenty of experience.
The new blood is in the backfield, where fullback Clay Harris and slotbacks Dante Smith and Keyonte Sessions are new starters, though the three combined for 159 carries last season. They are joined by transfer Remus Bulmer, who ran for 2,117 yards and 15 touchdowns at Sam Houston State.
"I feel like we've got a pretty steady lineup of five to seven guys on the offensive line who can go in and be productive for us," Thompson said. "We've had to sort of rebuild the line over the last two years, and it all starts on the line for us."
Getting as much production as possible from the 6-2, 205-pound Webb will be a key. He caught just 17 passes a year ago, but he averaged 22.6 yards per catch and scored two touchdowns, including a 91-yarder. He also carried only four times, but he averaged 23 yards per rush with another TD, a 59-yarder.
On defense, former Navy assistant Grantham, who was the defensive coordinator at Western Illinois last season, has brought in a 3-4 look that's a major change from what amounted to a 4-2-5 under Blake Harrell, now the DC at Kennesaw State.
Grantham has All-SoCon picks in defensive tackle Joseph Randolph II and linebacker Willie Eubanks III to lead his unit, along with transfer linebacker Airan Reed, a three-year starter at Southern Illinois.
"He's done a good job of getting those guys to believe in what he's doing over there," Thompson said. "And he's using a lot of different personnel groupings, which helps our depth. It allows us to utilize more people and keep them fresh on the field."
The kicking game should be solid, with preseason All-SoCon picks Jacob Godek at place-kicker and Matthew Campbell at punter. Godek rallied from a subpar 2017 season to make 11 of 13 field goals and all 41 of his extra points last season; Campbell averaged 44.4 yards per punt as a freshman. Bulmer will get a shot at returning kickoffs, Thompson said.
And in case you are wondering, Thompson is still in his feelings about the Bulldogs being picked to finish seventh in the SoCon, a prediction he called "a flat-out joke."
"Of course," Thompson said. "I truly believe we are better than that, but now we have to go out and prove it. I put myself out there a little bit on that one, but I backed my team up and I like where we're at. I know some things about this team that a lot of people don't know, and that's the character and makeup of these guys."
The pre-conference schedule is difficult, opening with Top 25 FCS teams Towson and Elon before a trip to Georgia Tech and a Sept. 21 meeting with rival Charleston Southern. If the season finale against Wofford on Nov. 23 at Johnson Hagood Stadium is still relevant to the SoCon title chase, Thompson's team will be back where he wants it to be.
The Citadel Bulldogs
HEAD COACH: Brent Thompson, 20-14 in 3 seasons at The Citadel
LAST YEAR: 5-6 overall (4-4 SoCon)
RETURNING STARTERS: Offense 10, Defense 7
IMPACT PLAYERS: QB Brandon Rainey, OL Haden Haas, OL Drew McEntyre, DL Joseph Randolph II, LB Willie Eubanks III, PK Jacob Godek, P Matthew Campbell.
NOTABLE: QB Brandon Rainey led The Citadel to a 3-1 finish, including a 10-10 halftime tie at Alabama, after taking over as the starting quarterback last season. The Bulldogs return 4 of 5 starters on the offensive line and starting receivers Raleigh Webb and Ryan McCarthy. On defense, new coordinator Tony Grantham is installing a 3-4 look that will feature linebackers Willie Eubanks III and Airan Reed, a transfer from Southern Illinois.
Date Opp. Time
Aug. 31—Towson, 3 p.m.
Sept. 7—at Elon, 2 p.m.
Sept. 14—at Georgia Tech, 12:30 p.m.
Sept. 21—Charleston Southern, 6 p.m.
Sept. 28—at Samford, 3 p.m.
Oct. 5—VMI, 2 p.m.
Oct. 12—Western Carolina, 2 p.m.
Oct. 19—at Furman, 1 p.m.
Oct. 26—Mercer, 2 p.m.
Nov. 2—at ETSU, 3:30 p.m.
Nov. 16—at Chattanooga, 2 p.m.
Nov. 23—Wofford, noon
Jeff Hartsell's SoCon predictions
3. The Citadel
8. Western Carolina
HEAD COACH: Josh Conklin, 9-4 in one season at Wofford
LAST YEAR: 9-4 overall (6-2 SoCon)
RETURNING STARTERS: Offense 9, Defense 5
IMPACT PLAYERS: OL Justus Basinger, OL Michael Ralph, DL Thad Mangum, OL Blake Jeresaty, DL Mikel Horton, LB Jireh Wilson, DB Mason Alstatt, DB George Gbesee, QB Joe Newman, FB Nathan Walker.
NOTABLE: With nine starters back on offense (and their top 12 offensive linemen returning), the Terriers are the consensus pick to defend their SoCon title under second-year coach Josh Conklin. Bishop England graduate Blake Jeresaty anchors the offensive line, with senior Joe Newman back at quarterback and Cross High School's Nathan Walker at fullback. Wofford opens against S.C. State and plays at Clemson on Nov. 2.
HEAD COACH: Clay Hendrix, 14-9 in two seasons at Furman
LAST YEAR: 6-4 overall (6-2 SoCon)
RETURNING STARTERS: Offense 8, Defense 7
IMPACT PLAYERS: OL Bo Layton, LB Adrian Hope, PK Grayson Atkins, RB Devin Wynn, OL Andy Godwin, WR Thomas Gordon, LB Elijah McKoy, QB Darren Grainger.
NOTABLE: The big question at Furman is replacing quarterback Harris Roberts, and it looks like Darren Grainger, a 6-4 redshirt freshman from Conway, has the edge on the starting job. He appeared in four games last season, and has been competing with fellow redshirt freshman Hamp Sisson in preseason camp. Receiver Cam Burnette of Summerville, who caught 20 passes last year, has transferred to East Carolina. Furman's slate includes the opener against Charleston Southern, a road game at Virginia Tech and a season finale against NAIA school Point University.