Missing three linebackers is not the place to be when preparing for FCS No. 8 Wofford and punishing fullback Eric Breitenstein.
But that’s precisely where The Citadel football team finds itself this week as the Bulldogs resume their season after an open date.
Coach Kevin Higgins announced Monday that top reserve Yemi Oyegunle is done for the season with a torn groin muscle, joining sophomore starters Carl Robinson (knee) and Rah Muhammad (ankle) on the sideline.
The unfortunate series of injuries hit the Bulldogs (4-3, 3-2 Southern Conference) in the place they could least afford it, especially heading into a game with Wofford (6-1, 4-1), the top rushing team in FCS with 408.3 yards per game.
“Going into the season, I didn’t know how much depth we had at linebacker,” Higgins said at his weekly news conference. “We lost four seniors from last year, and we were starting three sophomores this season. If there was one position that we needed to keep healthy, it’s this group.”
It hasn’t worked out that way, with only Carson Smith left among the starting trio of sophomores. He now leads the Bulldogs with 58 tackles, and sophomore reserves Ian Thompson and Akeem Garnett have been thrust into starting roles.
At 6-3 and 210 pounds, Garnett is a former safety and slender by linebacker standards. Thompson, a 5-10, 215-pounder from Stratford High School, had nine tackles in his first start against Western Carolina two weeks ago. Higgins said true freshman James Riley will be removed from the redshirt list to help fill in.
“Certainly, it hurts,” Higgins said. “But you’ve got to keep moving and get the next guy ready.”
The Citadel had an open week to make defensive adjustments after Western Carolina’s spread attack piled up 298 rushing yards in the Bulldogs’ 45-31 win on Oct. 13. The Catamounts put two runners over the 100-yard mark in that game.
Higgins said added reps in practice for the young linebackers and some schematic adjustments up front should help the defense. But he also said the defensive front will have to produce against the Terriers.
“It’s critical that our front guys step up and make plays,” Higgins said. “Particularly guys like Chris Billingslea and Derek Douglas. They are veteran guys, and we need not only their leadership but their ability to play at the line of scrimmage.”
Breitenstein, a 5-11, 230-pound senior, has lived up to his billing as the preseason SoCon offensive player of the year. He’s averaging a league-best 159.7 yards per game, with 11 touchdowns and a gaudy 8.6 yards per carry.
In a 49-24 win over Elon earlier this season, Breitenstein set the SoCon single-game rushing mark with 321 yards. He ran for 123 yards and two scores in last week’s 38-28 win at Appalachian State.
“We have to get more than one player on him,” Higgins said. “He does such a great job with his vision and breaking tackles. The more guys we can get on him, the better.”
Problem is, The Citadel is running out of guys.
Saturday’s game is set for 1:30 p.m. and will be shown on ESPN3.com. Former Citadel announcer Darren Goldwater will do play-by-play
Wofford moved up one spot in the FCS Coaches Poll to No. 8 after its win over App State. From the SoCon, Citadel upset victims Georgia Southern and App State are at No. 2 and No. 15, respectively.