Houston's Bulldogs prepare for tough early slate

Senior QB Aaron Miller will lead the way for The Citadel this season. (Paul Zoeller/Staff)

Here's a number to ponder as The Citadel begins fall practice Monday under first-year head coach Mike Houston:


That's now many games the first three teams on the Bulldogs' 2014 schedule - Coastal Carolina, Florida State and Charleston Southern - combined to win last season. Coastal won 12 games while advancing to the FCS quarterfinals; FSU went 14-0 to win the BCS national championship; and CSU won 10 games, including a 32-29 win over The Citadel.

Welcome to Division I football, Coach Houston.

No wonder there's a sense of urgency as the Bulldogs, who went 5-7 in former coach Kevin Higgins' final season in 2013, open practice.

Here are five questions to answer as The Citadel prepares for its Aug. 30 season opener against Coastal Carolina.

With the departure of quarterback Ben Dupree and fullback Darien Robinson, the Bulldogs lose 60 percent of their 3,279 rushing yards and 73.5 percent of their 34 rushing touchdowns from a year ago. Senior Aaron Miller, who split time with Dupree the last three seasons, is now the main man at QB, but the fullback (or B-back) position is another matter. Junior Vinny Miller (5-10, 210) has moved over from slotback to share carries with sophomore Tyler Renew (5-11, 210), who averaged 6.9 yards per attempt in limited time last year.

Aside from senior Jake Stenson, a nifty pass-catcher, slotback is a largely umproven crew, with redshirt freshman Jonathan Dorogy and sophomore DeAndre Schoultz. Freshmen could have an impact here, with Isiaha Smith at B-back and guys like Jauveer Hammond and Matt Thompson II at slotback.

The backfield is not the only part of the offense that must be retooled. The Bulldogs graduated four starters on the line, including two-time team captain Keith Carter and All-Southern Conference tackle Cullen Brown.

That resulted in some shifting around during the spring, with junior center Sam Frye (5-10, 270) moving to left guard and sophomore tackle Harrison Davis (6-2, 260) taking over at center. Right guard Victor Hill (6-2, 265) is the only senior starter, with redshirt freshman Isaiah Pinson (6-3, 250) and junior Mike Mabry (6-1, 220) at the tackles. This unit must come together quickly.

At Lenoir-Rhyne last year, Houston and offensive coordinator Brent Thompson ran a triple-option offense that rushed for an NCAA all-division record 5,563 yards. So we know they like to run the ball.

But with an experienced group of receivers - including junior tight end Alex Glover, junior Brandon Eakins and sophomores Jorian Jordan and Rudder Brown - how much will the Bulldogs pass this season?

Last year at Lenoir-Rhyne, the Bears averaged just 6.7 passes per game, hitting 47 of 100 for 876 yards over 15 games. That's fewer attempts (153) and yards (1,001) than The Citadel had in just 12 games last year.

On the plus side, Lenoir-Rhyne quarterbacks threw for 10 touchdowns against only three interceptions last year, better than the Bulldogs' 5-3 ratio. With uncertainty on the line and in the backfield, a sharper passing game could be key for the Bulldogs.

New defensive coordinator Maurice Drayton, a former Citadel cornerback, has a fuller cupboard with which to work. He'll run a 4-2-5 with lots of returning talent in the front seven with the main questions at cornerback. Junior tackle Mitchell Jeter wreaked havoc in spring practice, and All-SoCon defensive end Justin Oxendine should be poised for his best season. Linebacker is solid as long as senior Carl Robinson (coming off ACL surgery) and junior Carson Smith (who missed last year with a fractured ankle) can stay healthy; junior James Riley and sophomore Tevin Floyd are proven quality, as is bandit Rah Muhammad. Corners will be manned by a combination of fifth-year senior Walker Smith and second-year players Cody Richardson, Malik Diggs and DeVonta Delaney.

Since he was hired in January, Houston has spent more time talking about attitude than schemes or formations. The Bulldogs will need all the attitude they can get to deal with that early slate.

"I believe there's a way to play college football and a way to win running this offense and this defense," said Houston, who had a 29-8 record in three seasons at Lenoir-Rhyne. "And in order to win running the styles we run, the key factor is more how you do it than what you do. You can be a very poor team running the same schemes we do if you don't play with that edge and that aggressiveness. That edge is the key thing that allows you to be successful."