Tempo will be the key for new-look Bulldogs

Head coach Mike Houston says tempo is key for the Bulldogs this season. (Paul Zoeller/Staff)

Ask Citadel football players what is different under new coach Mike Houston, and most of them come up with one word.


It's not as if all the Bulldogs are now running a 4.3 in the 40, though that would be nice. Rather, it's the tempo at which things are done - especially in practice - that is markedly different.

"It's a lot faster than it used to be," said junior wide receiver Alex Glover. "I like it a lot, because I feel like I'm shape. I think it will really help us in games, because it will keep teams on their heels. And it's a good change-up from what we had been doing in the past."

Houston and offensive coordinator Brent Thompson bring a no-huddle twist to the triple-option offense, one they used to take Lenoir-Rhyne to a 13-2 record and the NCAA Division II national title game last season.

The no-huddle doesn't necessarily mean a hurry-up pace for all four quarters. Lenoir-Rhyne averaged 68.5 plays per game last season, just a bit more than the Bulldogs' 65.1 plays per game during a 5-7 season that closed out Kevin Higgins' nine years as head coach.

But it does mean that the Bulldogs - in theory, anyway - can vary their pace at will and force the issue in the second half of games.

"Traditionally, if you look back at our scores at Lenoir-Rhyne, we had a lot of games against good teams that were close at the half," said Houston, who had a 29-8 record in three seasons at Lenoir-Rhyne. "We pulled away and really put teams away in the middle of the third quarter, fourth quarter because of conditioning and the way we played.

"Our hope is to develop that same identity here, to have that same conditioning and mentality to win close games in the second half."

Being able to control tempo is key to that identity, Houston said.

"It depends on who we are playing and how the game is flowing," he said. "If we need to control the ball and have 30-plus minutes in time of possession, we want to be able to do that. When we get somebody on the ropes and we want to turn up the gas a little bit, we want to be able to do that."

The Bulldogs' offense has more question marks than the defense, though senior quarterback Aaron Miller has plenty of experience after sharing time with Ben Dupree the last three seasons. By all accounts, Miller - who was recruited at Lenoir-Rhyne by Houston - has stepped up quickly into a leadership role.

But at B-back - usually the top rusher in the triple-option - all-SoCon runner Darien Robinson is gone, leaving redshirt freshman Tyler Renew and true freshman Isiaha Smith (5-10, 220) to fill the job. Junior Vinny Miller could see time at B-back and slotback, where an array of backs are vying for carries.

The offensive line lost four starters and has been the focus of some shuffling in the preseason, with tackle Victor Hill the only senior in the starting unit. Ironically - since the Bulldogs won't pass much - the wide-receiver corps is the most experienced and physically impressive part of the offense, led by Wando High School grads Glover (6-3, 235), Brandon Eakins (6-2, 195) and Rudder Brown (6-4, 215).

New coordinator Maurice Drayton's defense might have to carry the load early, with a front seven that is the strength of the team - Justin Oxendine, Mitchell Jeter and sack specialist Mark Thomas are up front, with a stable of linebackers led by Carl Robinson and Carson Smith. Both starting cornersbacks must be replaced, with senior Walker Smith and athletic DeVonta Delaney top candidates.

Sophomores Eric Goins and Will Vanvick are competing at punter, with Goins and junior Austin Jordan vying for place-kicking duties.

Picked to finish sixth in the new-look Southern Conference, the Bulldogs face a tough early slate: 2013 FCS quarterfinalist (Coastal Carolina), defending FBS national champion (Florida State), a 10-win team (Charleston Southern) and nemesis Wofford (15 straight wins over The Citadel) in the first five games.