The Citadel enters the 2009 season hoping to avoid a repeat of last fall (4-8, 2-6 SoCon) that included dropping seven of its final eight games for its 10th losing record in 11 seasons. Fifth-year head coach Kevin Higgins returns crucial ingredients on the offensive side of the ball in quarterback Bart Blanchard (205-of-345 passing, 2436 yards, 19 TD, 11 INT), wide receiver Andre Roberts and First Team All-Southern Conference left tackle Daniel DeHaven – a trio that helped the military academy finish '08 ranked 44th nationally in the FCS division in scoring offense (27.3) and 49th in total offense (364.3 ypg) using a spread-option scheme.
The Citadel's ranked ranked 103rd in scoring defense (32.8) and 90th in total defense (389.4 ypg) last fall, but return 10 starters, including All-SoCon performers Terrence Reese and Dewitt Jones on the defensive line. The Bulldogs were unable to create many turnovers last season (15, 102nd nationally), partly due to an inability to pressure the quarterback (93rd in sacks, 111th in tackles for loss).
"Mel Capers is a defensive player for them that in their defensive schemes, sometimes they're quasi-strong safeties and sometimes they're outside linebackers, but the one thing that he's got is that this is a kid that's blocked nine kicks in his career. That, in and of itself, is extremely impressive." – UNC head coach Butch Davis
"The one thing that helps me out the most is yards after the catch. I'm looking to score every time. You have to have the strength along with the speed to break the tackles." – Bulldogs wide receiver Andre Roberts
For a Bulldogs program lacking a host of standouts, Andre Roberts delivers more playmaking ability than your average player can provide. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound senior wideout earned 2008 first-team All All-American honors after totaling 95 receptions for 1,334 yards and 14 touchdowns, and also led the nation in punt returns (19.2 ypr, 3 TD). The Columbia, S.C. native caught a school record 14 passes for 190 yards and three touchdowns against Wofford, but also showcased his talent against Clemson, grabbing nine catches for 153 yards and a touchdown at Death Valley.
"There's no question in my mind he can play at the next level, and he can be successful," Higgins recently told The State newspaper.
But clutch performances overshadow gaudy statistics any day of the week, and Roberts has that area covered as well. With his squad trailing Chattanooga 21-17 with less than two minutes to play, the senior chased down a punt that he was never intended to field and worked his way through the Mocs' punt coverage unit for a 43-yard touchdown that sealed the victory.
Roberts led the FCS with 19.2 yards per punt return.
"We've tried to spend a significant amount of time on covering kicks," Davis said. "He's an electrifying returner, and you can't give him that kind of an opportunity."
Matchups to Watch
North Carolina's ground game vs. The Citadel's rush defense
Heading into last season's season opener against FCS opponent McNeese State, Greg Little used words like "smash" and "obliterate" when talking about what UNC's ground game was going to accomplish. As it turned out, the running back corps totaled just 69 rushing yards on a 3.1 yards-per-carry average. The Tar Heels desperately needed every one of Brandon Tate's 397 all-purpose yards, as well as Hakeem Nicks' six receptions for 110 yards.
Fast forward one season and the only roster where you will find Tate or Nicks is in the professional ranks. Juniors Shaun Draughn (866 yards, 4.4 ypc) and Ryan Houston (299 yards, 8 TD) return as the likely early-season weapon of choice for offensive coordinator John Shoop, and they're joined in the backfield by red-shirt freshman Jamal Womble and true freshman A.J. Blue.
UNC's offensive line lost seven reserves during the offseason, but the starting five from spring practice is still intact. Saturday will be important for first-time starters Jonathan Cooper (LG) and Mike Ingersoll (RT) to get their feet wet.
If there was ever an opportunity to excel early, facing a Bulldog defense that was atrocious against the run in '08 would be it. The Citadel coughed up 189.1 rushing yards per contest, good for seventh in the Southern Conference and 95th nationally in the FCS. The Bulldogs do return 10 starters on defense, but their starting defensive ends check in at 231 and 235 pounds, respectively, and on senior tackle Terrence Reese (286) boasts a weight north of 275 on the defensive line.
North Carolina's defensive line vs. The Citadel's offensive line
The Tar Heels incredible depth and talent along the defensive line has been hyped since spring ball, despite the '08 statistics not supporting that full weight. UNC ranked 11th in the ACC in total defense (365.4 ypg) last season, thanks in large part to the defensive line's inability to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks (11th in both sacks and tackles for loss).
While Blanchard and Roberts will serve as a legitimate challenge in the passing game, the Bulldogs have to replace four of their top five receiving threats, as well as three offensive linemen and running back Asheton Jordan (711 yards, 5.0 yards per carry). To make matters worse for The Citadel, expected starting running back Rickey Anderson suffered a broken leg and backup Van Dyke Jones suffered a broken hand during training camp. Those two will be replaced by freshmen walk-ons Remi Biakabutuka and Bucky Kennedy against North Carolina.
If North Carolina's front four fail to dominate the line of scrimmage on Saturday, that preseason hype will quickly vanish into the night.