In the FCS Huddle: Triple option best option for The Citadel
By Tim McDonnell, FCS Assistant
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - If you could guess off the top of your head the FCS' top three rushing teams last season, a couple of programs come to mind. Wofford, Georgia Southern, Sam Houston State and maybe even Towson.
If you picked the first two Southern Conference teams correctly, would you believe the next team also came from the same league?
That's right, when you consider the nation's top run-oriented teams use a triple option offense, the correct choice is The Citadel Bulldogs.
Under the direction of coach Kevin Higgins, the Bulldogs had to completely rebuild their foundation for success. Entering the 2010 season, his teams had hovered below the .500 mark and finished above it just once in 2007.
Change was needed, but not in the form of a new leader or new recruiting methods. Rather, it was in with the new, out with the old mentality, or even more fitting, if you can't beat them, join them.
That's exactly what the Bulldogs did just two seasons ago. Converting their traditional spread offense to the difficult and rarely seen triple option. Higgins hired nine new coaches, and took many steps backward, knowing it would take time and patience to adjust to a new offense.
"I talked with a lot of coaches who told me the ball is going to be on the ground quite a bit," Higgins said, "and that we would go through agony putting it in, but that it would pay dividends for us in the end."
Higgins explained that he looked at teams who ran option-oriented offenses, specifically within the Southern Conference, and figured it made sense for the Charleston, S.C., military school to try to win games on the ground.
"I did a lot of research on the Naval Academy, Air Force and West Point programs who ran the triple option," Higgins said. "The success those programs have, I think is a direct result from having the ability to run an offense that is unique throughout the country. We can recruit players that aren't as big or fast as some of the other schools in our league but have great toughness and skills necessary to be successful in an offense like this."
After a brutal first season in the new offense, with key players having to adjust or play new roles or positions, it made the transition difficult. Junior quarterback Ben Dupree admitted there was some doubt as to whether the team could progress.
"It has definitely been a rough and a smooth transition," Dupree said. "At first it was difficult for everybody, some of the wide receivers and running backs had different responsibilities. Well, you know how receivers are, so when we switched from the spread, from 20-25 passes a game, and now it's no more than 10 passes a game, so it was hard. But it's amazing how every player no matter what the position has bought into the system now and we want it just as bad."
Last season, The Citadel finished with a record of 4-7. It's certainly not the type of results the Bulldogs hoped for, but there actually were a couple of signs that pointed in the right direction. Five losses came by 10 points or less, the team averaged 286.6 yards rushing per game, and the defense allowed averages of 23.4 points per game and 343.8 yards of total offense, which ranked second and third, respectively, in the Southern Conference. The Bulldogs nearly pulled out a win at traditional conference power Georgia Southern before losing 14-12, and lost a shootout versus Appalachian State 49-42.
If anything, last season proved the triple option gives The Citadel the best chance to win games. For returning all-conference center Mike Sellers, the team has a different definition of success that most wouldn't understand.
"There was times two years ago when the team didn't know if we could do this. It was a great learning experience, but, ultimately, we came together," Sellers said. "You have to understand what we consider success came through time. Last year, the offensive line and quarterbacks were making reads and checks, we were reading defenses better and it made things easier. It's more about confidence now. There's no more guessing or arguing over plays, we trust each other a lot more."
In Sellers' case, the transition to the triple option was even more challenging because of the unique type of lineman needed. A 6-foot, 285-pound center, Sellers, from nearby Summerville, S.C., came to The Citadel as a wrestler and running back in high school.
"That's an example of a guy who never would have played in other systems but now has the opportunity to play in this system," Higgins said. "In the past, we looked for huge 300-pound lineman, but now we don't need that, we need smaller athletic players."
"As a running back, I wanted to change the game with the ball in my hands, so I had to get out of that mind-set and play as a blocking lineman," Sellers said as he laughed. "There were times when I literally couldn't get the ball back to the quarterback because I had never played on the line before. Coach kept trusting me and believing in me even when we had eight or nine turnovers - a freshman center and quarterback who were both 18, new coaches and a new offense."
With fall camp just weeks away, the Bulldogs, who have become more comfortable with their new direction, continue to build to try to make that next step as one of the top teams in the SoCon.
"Coach keeps preaching we need to keep chipping away and stay together as teammates on and off the field," Dupree said. "We've all bought into it, but we know we have to take it one game at a time. Every game in the Southern Conference is probably going to be a dog fight, you can lose to the best and worst teams on any given Saturday."
In order for the Bulldogs to achieve any type of success this season, they must first get over two important hurdles. First and foremost, even in a triple option offense that runs the ball nearly 90 percent of the time, they have to pass the ball more effectively. The Citadel finished last in the nation, passing the ball for 32.2 yards a game in 2011.
Higgins and Sellers both mentioned the needed improvement of the passing game, including the addition of triple option shot-gun packages.
"I felt like last year almost every game we focused running the ball in the middle of the field," Sellers said, "but now we worked in a couple of passing formations, using motion and other stuff. Hopefully, now teams can't put eight guys in the box. We weren't great last year (passing), but we were still in games, so imagine how much better we can be if we can run and pass effectively."
The second hurdle? A brutal schedule which includes a three-game stretch after Week 1 with games versus Georgia Southern, followed by road contests at Appalachian State and North Carolina State.
Higgins, now in his eighth season, acknowledged the test his team will face in the first four weeks of the season head-on.
"There's a sense of urgency because of who we are playing early," Higgins said. "Georgia Southern and Appalachian State are top-five ranked opponents and N.C. State has so much talent. We've got a tremendous challenge, but again, we just worry about the process and take care of what we can control from our end, and trust that the results will take care of themselves."
"We love that we have those games early, so we can really see who we are," Dupree said. "We don't want to start out the season slow, you want to play against the best to be the best. By Week 4, we can see what type of team we are."
07/24 16:18:17 ET