The roster numbers are down, but Citadel receiver Raleigh Webb says enthusiasm is up as the Bulldogs get ready for an unprecedented spring football season in the Southern Conference.
The Citadel played four games last fall after the coronavirus pandemic wiped out nearly the entire FCS schedule, going 0-4 against a slate that included FBS squads Clemson, South Florida and Army West Point.
That 0-4 record will carry over to this spring, when the Bulldogs will play an eight-game SoCon schedule, kicking off on Feb. 27 at Mercer.
Citadel players are much more comfortable with playing this spring after traversing the unknowns of COVID-19 in the fall, said Webb, the all-SoCon receiver who is back to continue his fifth season.
"It's definitely a lot different now than it was in the fall," Webb said on Feb. 22 during the Bulldogs' first news conference of the spring season. "There were a lot of unknowns back then, and people didn't know what to expect or how serious it was.
"We had all the new things that were going on — meeting rooms split up all over campus so that we could follow protocol, testing two or three times a week just to be able to play. But now, moving into the spring season, it's a whole different mindset. Kids are ready to play football."
Coach Brent Thompson said the current roster has about 72 players, down from the usual 100 or so. Five players have opted out (compared with 11 last fall), and six are currently suspended for violation of team rules.
But more important than numbers might be simple enthusiasm. Thompson said he noticed a wide range of interest level among college teams last fall, and some in the SoCon are reportedly less than inspired about playing this spring.
"I told the guys at the beginning, we've got to be all in to play in the spring," Thompson said. "I felt it in the fall, with all of the unknowns we had. Even with the schedule, that kind of limited the enthusiasm to play. We addressed that in our first team meeting in the spring, that that would be an important factor.
"In the fall, you saw everybody from Michigan to Alabama and all the teams in between," he said. "There were certain teams you just sensed really didn't have an interest in playing. The Ohio States and Clemsons and Alabamas of the world, they were on a mission. But you had some very good football teams that you could tell it really drastically affected them."
Thompson said he learned a lot himself last fall about coaching during COVID. The Citadel's best performance came in its final game, a 14-9 loss at Army.
"I learned a lot about the psychological end of things," Thompson said. "And I think I learned a lot about what it takes to prepare guys here, from a practice and meeting standpoint. That will be a little different from what we did in the fall."
Though the 0-4 record in the fall carries over to the spring, the Bulldogs will play with a different roster. Gone are quarterback Brandon Rainey, tackle Prince Howard-Whitaker and strong safety Sean-Thomas Faulkner. Receiver Ryan McCarthy is playing baseball only this spring.
Redshirt sophomore Jaylan Adams will replace Rainey as the starting quarterback, backed up by redshirt sophomore Darique Hampton, who played QB at Goose Creek High school and moves over from slotback.
A big boost came from the return of the 6-2, 213-pound Webb, who caught 30 passes for 617 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2019, and FCS All-America linebacker Willie Eubanks III, the SoCon defensive player of the year in 2019.
"I just think everyone is more bought in this spring," Webb said. "We know what to expect, we know all the COVID protocols and what we have to do. It's not new to us anymore; we've all gone through it and we know what to expect."