The Citadel 2023 Football Preview

Delve into The Citadel's football forecast – new coaching, returning starters, and defensive prowess under scrutiny.

The Citadel at SoCon Media Day 2023
Source: The Citadel Athletics

Team Overview

Head Coach: Maurice Drayton (1st Year)

2022 Record: 4-7 overall, 3-5/T-6th in SoCon

Returning Starters: 19

Offensive Starters: 7

Defensive Starters: 8

Special Teams: 4

Players to Watch Offense

  • RB Cooper Wallace (75 rush att, 409 yds, 3 TDs, 5.5 YPC)
  • RB Ricky Conway (40 rush att, 194 yds, 1 TD, 4.9 YPC/19 rec, 244 yds, 2 TDs, 12.8 YPR)
  • WR Tyler Cherry (10 rec, 146 yds, 2 TDs, 14.6 YPR)
  • OL Mike BartIlucci
  • OL Zach Blanchard
  • OL Cameron Moewe
  • RB Braden Walker (68 rush att, 366 yds, 2 TDs, 5.4 YPC)
  • QB Graeson Underwood (7-of-14 passing, 162 yds, 1 TD/62 rush att, 217 yds, 2 TDs)
  • WR Ahmad Green (16-of-33 passing, 198 yds, 1 TD)
  • OL Ben Brockington (1 rec, 29 yds, 1 TD, 29.0 YPR)
  • QB Varney Layman (RS), WR JJ Hudson (1 rec, 14 yds)
  • WR Hi’Keem Monroe (no stats in 2022)
  • RB Johnny Crawford III (57 rush att, 242 yds, 3 TDs, 4.2 YPC)

Key Losses on Offense

  • WR Christian Hilton
  • RB Logan Billings
  • RB Sam Llewellyn
  • OL Tereis Drayton
  • QB Peyton Derrick

Players to Watch Defense

  • LB Hasan Black (82 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 2 PBUs, 1 QBH)
  • LB Je’Mazin Roberts (5 tackles)
  • DB Dominick Poole (48 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 3 INTs, 2 FFs, 2 FRs)
  • DL Carson Hatchett (42 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 QBHs)
  • DL KJ Pierce (24 tackles)
  • LB Brian Horn (42 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 3 PBUs, 1 FR, 1 FF, 1 QBH)
  • DL Jay Smith (20 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 0.5 sack)
  • DB Travon Wallace (49 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 INT)
  • DB Melvin Ravenell (9 tackles, 1 PBU)

Key Losses on Defense

  • DB Chris Beverly
  • LB Kyler Estes
  • DB Destin Mack
  • LB Marquise Blount

Key Additions from the Transfer Portal

  • QB Dustin Fletcher (Northern Illinois)
  • WR Dervon Pesnell (Campbell)
  • TE Pat McSweeney (Coastal Carolina)
  • DB Jamond Dubose (Maine)
  • LB Camden Gray (Wofford)
  • DL Jerome Bass (Brevard College)

Preseason All-SoCon Selections: (None)

Redshirt Sports Predicted Finish: 6th in SoCon

Preseason Outlook

The Citadel’s football program enters the 2023 season under new leadership, and it’s a head coach that understands the challenge very well, in former standout defensive back Maurice Drayton. Drayton had spent different stints as an assistant coach of the Bulldog football program, and in now his third different stint at his alma mater, it will account for his first head coaching opportunity.

There’s a quiet optimism for The Citadel’s football program heading into the 2023 season. There’s a lot of “new” and “unknown” surrounding the Bulldog football program. Drayton knows himself what it takes for The Citadel to be successful. After all, he was the defensive coordinator for the Bulldogs back in 2015, which was the season the Bulldogs would see their breakthrough season, winning the first of back-to-back Southern Conference titles.

Drayton was apart of that 2014 staff originally brought in by Mike Houston at The Citadel in year one, and it didn’t take that staff all that long to survey the landscape and begin to turn things around.

The Bulldogs head into the 2023 season with little fanfare and low expectations. In fact, the Bulldogs were selected to finish eighth in the coaches poll and seventh in the media poll. Redshirt Sports has them a little higher, having the Bulldogs picked to finish sixth in our poll in year one of the Maurice Drayton era.

If there’s any program that’s dangerous when expectations are low, it’s The Citadel. It plays right into their disciplined, “against the world” approach to any season.

While low expectations aren’t surprising for a team that finished just 4-7 overall and 3-5 (T-6th) in the Southern Conference last season, it is a bit shocking that the Bulldogs had zero preseason all-conference selections.

In Drayton’s first season as a part of Mike Houston’s staff back in 2014, the Bulldogs were picked sixth in the preseason by the media, and when they would end up as SoCon title co-champions in 2015, the Bulldogs were picked seventh by the league’s media. So Drayton has his new staff will not know how to approach those low expectations.

Despite not having a player picked to either all-conference team in the preseason prior to the 2023 campaign, the Bulldogs return talent on both sides of the ball. On offense, the Bulldogs will have much of their same option personnel returning this fall in what will be a new offense, which will feature option principles, according to coach Drayton at the 2023 SoCon Media Day at the Hotel Hartness in Greenville, S.C., which was held at the end of July.

Running back Cooper Wallace, quarterback-turned-wide receiver Ahmad Green, running back Ricky Conway,offensive lineman Zach Blanchard, offensive lineman Ben Brockington, wide receiver Tyler Cherry and quarterback Graeson Underwood represent just some of the talent returning on the offensive side of the ball for the Bulldogs.

On defense, there’s plenty of talent returning as well. Players like defensive lineman Carson Hatchett, defensive lineman KJ Pierce, linebacker Je’Mazin Roberts, linebacker Hasan Black and defensive back Dominick Poole are all back that could help the Bulldogs field a solid defensive unit this fall.

Drayton has built his staff, featuring plenty of former standout Bulldogs in one era or another, with many of those on his first coaching staff in Charleston having tasted championship or playoff success during their time as Bulldog players. Those staff members include defensive coordinator Raleigh Jackson, who played for The Citadel from 2003-07, and was part of Drayton’s defensive staff back in 2014 and ‘15.

Jackson was a part of two teams in 2003 and ‘07 that saw the Bulldogs on the brink of Southern Conference championship successes, with both of those campaigns featuring memorable wins against the cream of the crop on the Southern Conference gridiron.

Though the ‘03 Bulldogs finished 6-6, the season was a rarity, in that it featured wins vs. Appalachian State (W, 24-21), vs. Furman (W, 10-9) and at Georgia Southern (W, 28-24). Those three wins were significant in likely keeping SoCon’s “Big Three” at the time out of the FCS playoffs. Unfortunately, for the Bulldogs, a loss to Wofford (L, 16-42) late in the season at Johnson-Hagood Stadium for all the marbles would put that season on a bit of the skids, however, as the Bulldogs would follow with losses at Chattanooga (L, 20-29) and at East Tennessee State (L, 13-16).

That ‘03 team that Jackson was a part of took on the likes of eventual national title winner Delaware and that season’s Gator Bowl winner Maryland in what was a golden era for Terps football under the direction of Ralph Friedgen.

In Jackson’s senior season, he would be a part of a breakthrough Bulldog team that would win seven games for the first time since 1992, when the Bulldogs posted their best season in program history by finishing 11-2.

The ‘07 team would again play a challenging slate, taking one of the toughest schedules in school history, and had it not been for a late-season injury to quarterback Duran Lawson in a loss at Georgia Southern, The Citadel would have likely found themselves back in the FCS postseason. That ‘07 Bulldogs team had one of the premier receivers to ever play in the Southern Conference within its ranks, in future NFL veteran wideout Andre Roberts.

Another member of The Citadel’s current coaching staff is Everette Sands, and he has the title of “Offensive Skill Specialist” as a key member of Drayton’s staff. Sands was not only one of the most important players in the history of The Citadel’s football history and tradition, but is also maybe the winningest former Bulldog on staff.

During his four seasons starring as a running back for the Bulldogs, Sands was a four-time All-SoCon selection and currently ranks second in program history in career rushing yards, having finished his standout career running the football for the Bulldogs having rushed for 3,926 yards in his career with the Bulldogs. He still also ranks second in school history with 16 career 100-yard rushing efforts, while ranking third in program history in all-purpose yards (3,977) and touchdowns (34), while ranking fourth in program history in scoring (204 pts).

Sands was a member of that 1992 team that defeated Arkansas and Army, with the only regular-season loss coming at the hands of a nationally-ranked and eventual national champion Marshall team (L, 13-34). Other than that, the Bulldogs would win their 10 other games, which included wins over both FBS programs Arkansas (W, 10-3) and Army (W, 15-14).

Dominique Allen, who is The Citadel’s offensive quality control coach, has also enjoyed plenty of championship success for the Bulldogs, captaining The Citadel to SoCon titles in 2015 and ‘16 as the Bulldogs’ quarterback. He helped guide the 2016 Bulldogs to a perfect 8-0 SoCon record, which included 10-straight wins. One of Allen’s crowning achievements was being the quarterback of a Bulldogs team that knocked off SEC East member South Carolina, 23-22, in Williams-Brice Stadium.

During that 2015 campaign, Allen rushed for 953 yards and 13 scores, while throwing for 871 yards and another four scores to lead The Citadel’s football team.

Another part of the championship DNA that head coach Maurice Drayton has brought on staff comes from arch-rival Furman, in offensive coordinator Patrick Covington, however, he’s also been a part of a lot of Southern Conference wins as a player in his career as a player in this league.

During his time spent as an All-American and All-SoCon offensive lineman for Furman from 2002-05, Covington won a share of a SoCon title in 2004, as well as helping lead the Paladins all the way to the doorstep of the national championship game in his senior campaign of 2005. That ‘05 season saw Covington as a member of the best offense in Furman’s football tradition-rich history, as well as one of the top offenses in Southern Conference history, with the Paladins finishing that ‘05 season averaging 469.9 YPG.

Prior to becoming offensive coordinator of the Bulldogs, Covington spent time as the offensive line coach at Coastal Carolina (2009-19) and was the offensive coordinator at Lamar (2020-22) in his most recent post prior to joining Drayton’s staff this past spring. Covington was also the assistant head coach in his final season of 2019 with the Chanticleers.

Others on The Citadel’s staff have been around the program and know what it takes to be a winner in the LowCountry. Guys like former Bulldog quarterback Joe Call (1999-2002) and former defensive line coach Roberto Pinilla (2002-05)have helped build The Citadel from a foundational standpoint as both player and coach in their respective careers once before in Charleston.

Call is a name that resonates among Charlestonians, as he is the grandson of the winningest high school football coach in the history of the sport–Summerville’s John McKissic–as well as being one of the more beloved quarterbacks in Bulldogs football lore, throwing for 949 yards and five scores in his career with the Bulldogs football program.

Call, who will serve the Bulldogs staff as the assistant to the head coach as well as being part of the game-day management staff. He spent eight years as a head coach at both Oceanside High School and Summerville High School, as well as a full 12 years as an assistant at Summerville prior to succeeding his legendary grandfather in that post for five years (2015-19) before moving on to become the head coach at Oceanside for two seasons.

Pinilla helped The Citadel produce two of its best pass rushers in school history during his previous stint, in Michael Ballentine and Cliff Washburn. Washburn would go on to play in the NFL and NFL Europe and is a member of The Citadel’s athletics Hall-of-Fame, while Ballentine went on to become the school’s all-time sacks leader. Pinilla also sports experience coaching at two other schools in the SoCon, serving as the defensive line coach at both East Tennessee State (1999-2000) and Furman (2003-06).

All told, Drayton has built his staff with a winning DNA, with coaches familiar with the Bulldogs football program and many of the successes the program has experienced over the past three decades, whether as a player or coach. And if they haven’t been a part of the Bulldogs’ successes at some point, he’s hired coaches that have both played at and coached at programs that have won at a high level at some point in their careers. Those are the kind of ingredients it takes to turn a football program back in a positive direction.

Previewing the Bulldogs Offense

Most of the questions for Bulldogs fans heading into the 2023 season surround the offensive side of the football, due in large part to the struggles The Citadel experienced last season, while the other being the newness and unknowns the new staff will bring offensively as a whole. What will the philosophy be and will the Bulldogs be going completely away from the option? That’s at least a broad paint brush stroke of the questions on many Bulldog fans’ minds heading into the upcoming season.

While those might be the questions, Bulldog fans might stand a better chance of filing a Freedom of Information Request with NORAD on Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon or UAP’s to get information rather than find anything out about the Bulldog offense from their new head coach, and just how much of that new scheme will feature something of an aerial phenomenon in the Low Country in recent seasons.

What is known is that Drayton is going to have option principles within his spread offense and the approach to the utilization of the option will be data driven. Talking to Drayton at SoCon media day, I got the sense he was incredibly intelligent and a coach, who is going to bring an analytical approach and use statistical data, especially on the offensive side of the ball, to be an influencer of situational play-calling. It is very similar to the approach many basketball coaches I interview around the league use when having in-game data to dial up during a timeout in crucial situations.

It doesn’t take a lot of data analysis of The Citadel’s offense last season to know it wasn’t good in very many areas. Especially when it came to the red zone and scoring touchdowns.

It was quite possibly the most offensively-challenged Bulldogs unit since maybe the Don Powers era or perhaps maybe even under Ellis Johnson. Nonetheless, the Bulldogs were not very good.

The Bulldogs weren’t necessarily horribly low in total offense last fall, ranking 89th nationally (326.3 YPG), however, it was scoring points that seemed to be an eyesore all season. The Citadel ranked 101st nationally in scoring offense, averaging just 18.7 PPG in 2022. At one point last season, the Bulldogs experienced a scoreless streak that would span over 11 quarters of football.

There’s good news on the way, however, for Bulldog fans and it comes from the transfer portal in the form of sophomore dual-threat Dustin Fletcher under center. Fletcher is a classic dual-threat quarterback and he likes to sling the football around. While the Bulldogs will retain their option principles and even run some option plays this season, expect this Bulldog offense to be vastly different from ones we’ve been accustomed to over the past decade-plus.

Fletcher came to The Citadel from Northern Illinois where he was ranked as the No. 30 dual threat quarterback by 247Sports coming out of Flint Michigan’s Carman-Ainsworth High School where threw for more than 7,200 yards and 59 scores as a senior. Fletcher in a lot of ways has been called a “perfect fit” for Drayton’s new offensive scheme, as well as offering the SoCon yet another big-time dual threat signal-caller. He’s probably most comparable now to Furman’s Tyler Huff.

Though not official as of yet, Fletcher appears to be in line to be the starter when the Bulldogs take the field on Sept. 2 against former Southern Conference rival Georgia Southern.

Others competing with Fletcher for the starting job under center this fall are both redshirt sophomore Varney Laymanand junior Graeson Underwood. Layman has yet to see any action in his career with the Bulldogs, while Underwood was able to lead the Bulldogs to one of their best offensive outputs of the 2022 season against Western Carolina last season. Underwood had a season-high 36 carries for 131 yards and a touchdown in what was a 34-21 win in Cullowhee for the Bulldogs last season.

Underwood also had some success passing the ball against the Catamount defense last season, finishing the game by completing 4-of-7 passes for 87 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The Bulldogs ended the contest with 394 yards of total offense, with 318 of those yards coming on the ground.

Ahmad Green has made the transition from quarterback to wide receiver, and figures to be a major playmaker at wideout for the Bulldogs this fall. Green was one of the best players on the offensive side of the football last season, and it will likely be a priority to get the ball in his hands and in as many ways as possible each game for new offensive coordinator Patrick Covington in 2023.

Green finished the 2022 season by completing 16-of-33 passes for 198 yards, with a touchdown and no INTs. Though elusive, Green wasn’t as much of a threat in the ground game. He saw action in seven games for the Bulldogs last season, starting three games. His 169 yards passing against Furman last season marked the fourth-highest total for a Bulldog freshman quarterback in their first-career start.

The Bulldogs will also return big play threats Tyler Cherry and redshirt freshman Hi’Keem Monroe in the passing attack, while also welcoming in some newcomers like Campbell transfer Devron Pesnell that could make an immediate impact in the Bulldogs’ new offensive scheme this fall.

Monroe, who didn’t see action last season with the Bulldogs, could be a problem matchup in the SoCon with his 6-3 frame. JJ Hudson and Romello Jones are a pair of promising talents that figure to contribute this fall, as he comes to the Bulldogs program from Navy Prep.

Cherry is the most experienced of the Bulldog wide receivers, having caught 22 passes for 386 yards with three receiving scores in his Bulldogs career. He could be a potential all-conference candidate in Drayton’s new offense, predicated on big plays in the passing game. The Bulldogs lost their top receiving option from a year ago in Christian Hilton, who opted to transfer up to FBS Ohio University.

A position under-utilized in the passing game in recent seasons has been the tight end position, which should change with Drayton’s intent to make sure that when the Bulldogs go to the air, that the play-calling is aggressive and vertical. A player expected to make an impact right away at tight end is Coastal Carolina graduate transfer Pat McSweeney. McSweeney will compete with Tyson Trotter and Kaiden Swortzel for the starting spot in fall camp.

The ground attack has plenty of promising holdovers still around from the option offense, including a promising, versatile talent, in Ricky Conway. Cooper Wallace has done just about everything in his career for the Bulldogs, including even playing quarterback. Like Conway, Wallace can be a threat as a downfield receiving threat, having hauled in 11 passes for 93 yards and a score last season.

Others returning that will figure prominently in the plans of the Bulldogs ground attack this fall will be Jay Graves-Billips, as well as Braden Walker and Johnny Crawford III comprise a talented and deep reservoir of running backs.

Finally, the offensive line was young, but showed promise as the 2022 season progressed. Four starters return to anchor the Bulldog offensive front in 2023, as Sawyer Whitman (LG), Mike Bartilucci (C), Zach Blanchard (RG), and Cameron Moewe (LT) all return to the fold this fall.

This should be a different offense with more explosive options. The x-factor, of course, is Fletcher, who just might turn out to be one of the top offensive newcomers in the SoCon this fall.

Previewing the Bulldogs Defense

While plenty of excitement surrounds the offensive side of the football heading into the 2023 season, the bulk of the talent and maturity returns on the defensive side of the ball. The Bulldogs, who were primarily a 4-2-5 defensive scheme last season, will be multiple on the defensive side of the ball this season under first-year head coach Maurice Drayton.

The Bulldogs were solid defensively last fall, and talent returns at all three levels on defense for the upcoming season. Eight starters return on the defense that ranked

The Bulldogs will return two of their three starters along the defensive front from a year ago. Carson Hatchett (49 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks) highlights the returnees along the defensive front and he will likely be a preseason all-league selection. KJ Pierce (24 tackles) will return alongside Hatchett on the defensive front for the Bulldogs this fall.

Hatchett is an all-conference candidate along the Bulldogs defensive front and is primed for a big senior season in The Citadel Blue. For his career-to-date, Hatchett has posted a total of 126 tackles, 13.0 tackles-for-loss, 5.5 sacks, three passes defended and has a forced fumble.

A potential impact transfer along the defensive front could be Jerome Bass from Brevard College, where he was outstanding along the Tornados defensive front from 2019-22. During his time at the then Division II member of the South Atlantic Conference, Bass totaled 187 tackles, 34.5 tackles-for-loss, 15 sacks, forced two fumbles, recovered two fumbles and had an INT return 63 yards for a score.

The linebacking unit should also be strong heading into 2023, with the Bulldogs welcoming the return of top tackler from a year ago, in junior inside linebacker Hasan Black. Black shined in his role as the lynchpin of the Bulldogs defense last season, posting 82 tackles, 10.5 TFL, and led the team with four of the team’s 16 quarterback takedowns last season. For his efforts last season, Black was a second-team All-SoCon pick, however, was left off either of the preseason all-conference teams this season.

Black will have some new teammates in a starting role alongside him at linebacker this fall, with veterans like Kyler Estes and Marquise Blount having moved on. That could set the stage for a player like Je’Mazin Roberts to have a breakout type season for the Bulldogs this fall. Thomas Wyatt figures to step in at weakside linebacker with the departure of Blount. The sophomore from McKeesport, PA, was solid for the Bulldogs in his rookie campaign, posting 30 tackles, 3.5 TFL, and a pair of quarterback hurries.

Brian Horn gives the Bulldogs some valuable experience alongside Black returning at the second level of the Bulldogs defense. Horn put up solid numbers last season, posting 42 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, broke up three passes and posted a pair of quarterback hurries.

The secondary was definitely a strength of the Bulldogs defense last fall, however, the graduations of both cornerback Destin Mack and free safety Chris Beverly will leave at least a couple of question marks for a unit that was among the most experienced on the Bulldog roster a year ago.

The good news is The Citadel returns one of the very best corners in the SoCon and FCS this fall, with the return of lockdown cornerback Dominick Poole for the 2023 season. The junior figures to team with redshirt sophomore Melvin Ravenel at corner this fall, while graduate student Travon Wallace returns to his starting strong safety spot.

The Citadel’s defense is one that finished the season ranking solidly in the FCS all things considered. After all, with ineptitude of the Bulldogs’ offense forcing the defense to be on the field much longer that it probably would have liked last season, The Citadel still finished the season with solid national rankings among its FCS brethren.

The Bulldogs completed the 2022 campaign ranking 32nd in total defense (345.0 YPG), 25th in passing defense (194.8 YPG), 48th in rushing defense (150.2 YPG), 42nd in third down conversion percentage (.375), tied for 23rd in red zone defense (.756) and 41st in scoring defense (25.1 PPG). The good news is eight starters return on that side of the ball for the 2023 season.

Previewing the Bulldogs Special Teams Unit

The Citadel’s special teams unit will be highlighted by Dominick Poole in the return game, as he is an outstanding punt return threat, having averaged 10.3 YPR last season, which included setting up Colby Kintner’s winning field goal in an early-season win over East Tennessee State last season.

Junior running back Jay Graves-Billips (21.7 YPR) is slated to handle the kick return duties heading into fall camp. Kintner is slated to handle both the field goals (9-of-11 on FGs in 2022, 56-yd field goal was longest) and kickoffs (50.6 KO avg) once again for the Bulldogs this fall, while junior James Platte (38.0 YPP avg in 2022) returns to handle the punting duties.

Overall Synopsis

I really think folks in the media and head coaches are underestimating The Citadel. The Bulldogs had a strong defense last season, despite the offensive struggles. With the introduction of a brand new offense, as well as a new man under center that has been lighting up that strong defense at times during preseason camp, prospects seem good that the Bulldogs will produce at least a few surprises along the way in Maurice Drayton’s first season at the helm.

2023 Schedule prediction

  • Sept. 2 at Georgia Southern (L, 14-30)
  • Sept. 9 vs Campbell (W, 28-13)
  • Sept. 16 at Chattanooga (L, 21-31)
  • Sept. 23 at South Carolina State (W, 20-7)
  • Sept. 30 vs. Western Carolina (L, 28-31)
  • Oct. 7 at Furman (L, 24-35)
  • Oct. 14 vs. VMI (W, 28-17)
  • Oct. 21 at Samford (L, 17-35)
  • Nov. 4 vs Mercer (L, 13-17)
  • Nov. 11 vs. Wofford (W, 34-24)
  • Nov. 18 at East Tennessee State (W, 21-17)

Projected Final Regular-Season Record: 5-6 overall, 3-5 SoCon/6th