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Jacksonville a big jump up for The Citadel
In recent years, The Citadel has reached far down the college football food chain for early season foes, racking up blowout victories over Division II Chowan and NAIA member Webber International.
Trouble is, those three wins – by an average score of 62-7 – told coach Kevin Higgins little about his team and predicted nothing about how good or bad the Bulldogs’ season would be. For example, The Citadel blasted Chowan, 56-14, to open last season, and went on to lose eight of its next nine games for a 3-8 record.
That won’t be the case Saturday night as the Bulldogs open Higgins’ seventh season at Johnson Hagood Stadium against Jacksonville University, an FCS squad that won 10 games last year, narrowly missed out on the playoffs and finished the season ranked No. 22 in the nation.
The game is a conscious effort to upgrade the Bulldogs’ non-Southern Conference schedule, which this season also includes SEC contender South Carolina and military school rival VMI.
“No question about that,” Higgins said Monday. “When you play a good opponent in the first game, it allows you to raise the bar in camp and in practice. Chowan and Webber, those games have a purpose, and some of it is positive. But it can almost hurt you, because you get the sense that you are better than you are.”
When Higgins and athletic director Larry Leckonby sat down to discuss possible foes, they settled on teams from the Big South Conference (Charleston Southern, Coastal Carolina, etc.) and the Pioneer League, a non-scholarship FCS league.
“We felt if we could get somebody who is a good fit from either of those leagues, that would be great,” Higgins said. “Jacksonville had the opening, they are not that far from us, and we do have a lot of players from Florida, so it worked well for us.”
Jacksonville, with an enrollment of 3,600 students, is not to be confused with Jacksonville State, another FCS school in Jacksonville, Ala. The Dolphins’ most famous athlete is basketball Hall of Famer Artis Gilmore, who led the school to the NCAA title game in 1970. The football team is coached by ex-Florida quarterback Kerwin Bell, who played for Gators coach Galen Hall from 1983-87.
Like another former Gators QB of some repute in these parts, Bell believes in throwing the ball. His senior QB, Josh McGregor, is a Walter Payton Award candidate this season and passed for 3,049 yards and 32 touchdowns last season. His top target, senior receiver Josh Philpart, has caught 25 TD passes the last two seasons, and the Dolphins led all FCS teams in yards per game (486) and scoring (42.2 ppg) last season.
Jacksonville has faced SoCon foes Appalachian State (a 45-14 loss last year) and Samford (a 27-0 loss two years ago) in recent years, and Higgins compared the Dolphins to a “middle of the pack” SoCon team. He likened their spread offense to Elon’s, and to The Citadel’s in Higgins’ first years.
“Like anybody in the middle of our league, they could beat anybody on a given day,” Higgins said. “Their skill level is as good as almost anybody in our league, and they keep getting bigger and stronger.”
Senior linebacker Tolu Akindele said the Dolphins already have made a difference.
“No disrespect to the other teams, but when you go against a team that is capable of beating you in your own house, that tells you a lot,” he said. “We know we have to come out in the first quarter and get going right away. There’s no easing into it.”
In final position battles, Jeremy Buncum won the starting job at one defensive end, moving over from linebacker. Brandon McCladdie, a redshirt sophomore, will start at one corner along with Keith Gamble. Jim Knowles is starting at right guard for injured Jameson Bryant.
By Jeff Hartsell, Post and Courier