Citadel's Houston confident as D-I debut nears

Head coach Mike Houston makes his Citadel debut on Saturday against Coastal Carolina. (Paul Zoeller/Staff)

Mike Houston's credentials as a head football coach are impressive. In three seasons at Lenoir-Rhyne, he led the Bears to a 29-8 record, three conference titles and, last season, a berth in the national championship game.

But - and there is a but here - all of that was at the NCAA Division II level.

Houston, along with perhaps 15,000 Citadel fans who'll be at Johnson Hagood Stadium on Saturday, is eager to see how his stuff translates to the Division I level. He'll find out quickly as the Bulldogs host 2013 FCS playoff quarterfinalist and defending Big South champ Coastal Carolina at 6 p.m. Saturday in Houston's Citadel debut.

"I feel very comfortable that our program last year at Lenoir-Rhyne would have competed very successfully in the Southern Conference," Houston said Tuesday at his first weekly news conference of the season. "That's based on the film we looked, common opponents, the overall talent level in the league. I think it's a pretty smooth transition in that respect."

Houston's core concepts - a no-huddle, triple-option offense, an aggressive tempo, an attacking defense, an emphasis on conditioning - has been met with enthusiasm by Citadel players.

"Most definitely, it's going to make a difference," said senior linebacker Carl Robinson. "The new coaches have started a new mentality for the team. We are playing for the big play this year. We want to do great things out on the field, and the confidence is very high right now."

A difficult opening trio of games - Coastal Carolina, defending FCS champion Florida State and a road trip to Charleston Southern, which won 10 games and beat The Citadel last season - will give Houston immediate feedback on how well he has installed his system during fall camp.

"Now, we've got to implement what we do," he said. "At Lenoir-Rhyne, we had a group that had been trained and with us for a long time, and there was a certain level of understanding all around. That's the big thing now, meshing together between the staff and players, and that's something that will probably still be going on through the first third of the season."

Houston said he was happy with the progress made during fall camp - and with the fact that no major injuries were sustained.

"I think we are playing at much higher tempo right now, a lot more physical on both sides of the football," he said. "And we're starting to come together as a unit."

The two-deep depth chart The Citadel released Tuesday includes nine true freshmen and six redshirt freshmen, for a total of 15 players who've never played in a college game. Two of those redshirt freshmen - left tackle Isaiah Pinson and right guard Kyle Weaver - will be starting on the offensive line.

Coastal Carolina, meanwhile, returns a solid core from the team that went 12-3 last season and opens this season ranked No. 6 in the FCS coaches poll. Junior quarterback Alex Ross is a candidate for the Walter Payton Award (the FCS version of the Heisman Trophy), and senior linebacker Quinn Backus is up for the Buck Buchanan Award for the top linebacker in FCS.

The Chanticleers' top running back is sophomore De'Angelo Henderson, a 5-8, 205-pounder who averaged a school-record 7.3 yards per carry last year as the primary backup to Lorenzo Taliaferro, now with the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL.

"Coastal Carolina will offer us a great test," Houston said. "They will be a great barometer for where our program is now."

All of those things and more will run through Houston's mind as he readies for his Citadel debut.

"Everything," he said when asked him what keeps him up at night. "Are we ready for this, are we ready for that? Are we going to play up to our ability and not beat ourselves? All those things I think about. But I'm also ready for that first game, for that anticipation and to get out there and play."

Citadel officials say the new SoCon Digital Network should up be up and running in time to web-stream Saturday's game. There should be video links at both and

The first 2,000 fans at Saturday's game will receive a free cup (sponsored by Ashley Furniture), and fans can pick up a Citadel schedule magnet as they leave the game. The Burke High School band will perform at halftime.

Saturday's game also will mark the broadcast debut of new Citadel play-by-play man Mike Legg, who previously broadcast games at Western Kentucky and Southeast Missouri State. Legg will be joined in the booth by former Citadel great Lee Glaze, with Ted Byrne doing the tailgate show and Jay Harper producing and reporting on other college scores.