When does a team know the season has a chance to be something special?
“We kind of felt that way coming out of camp,” Citadel cornerback Dee Delaney said. “We just needed everybody to buy in.”
Sometimes it takes a big win, though, to solidify that feeling. “When we beat Chattanooga, that was a huge game for our program,” guard Kyle Weaver said. “Then we go out and keep following that up. Everybody keeps getting excited.”
And there could be little doubt something magical was in the air in the way the Bulldogs beat Wofford in October – an option pitch picked off and run back for a touchdown to tie the game, then winning in overtime.
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It’s a journey that has taken The Citadel to a 10-0 start, a second consecutive Southern Conference crown and high hopes as the Bulldogs (10-1) jump into Saturday’s second round of the FCS playoffs. And a handful of Beaufort County cadets have played a role along the way.
Delaney’s four interceptions are second in the league, moving the junior up to fourth on the Bulldogs’ career interception list with nine. He was an FCS All-American last season, just two years after converting from his receiver days at Whale Branch.
Weaver, a Hilton Head Christian graduate, has made 36 consecutive starts for an offensive line that has paved the way for The Citadel’s triple option to lead the FCS at 358.5 rushing yards per game.
They’re the main cogs, but not the only ones. Trey Nelson (Whale Branch) is a backup linebacker, while Max Ford (Whale Branch) and Mike Rentz (Beaufort) are reserve offensive linemen. You might even count starting quarterback Dominique Allen, who arrived from just across the state line in Richmond Hill, Ga.
“He’s got some Beaufort blood in him,” Weaver pointed out. “His parents were Marines at the air station there. So he lived there for a few years.”
That would make an even half-dozen. Not bad, even for a program that draws heavily from in-state sources.
“I feel like all of us are close,” Delaney said. “We went to a few different schools, but we have a good understanding with each other.”
The Bulldogs’ rise has been three years in the making, starting with Mike Houston’s two-year tenure after longtime coach Kevin Higgins left to become top assistant at Wake Forest. The Citadel had been stuck in the middle of the SoCon pack, so a shakeup wasn’t necessarily bad.
Both Delaney and Weaver referenced a “change in culture” that was installed by coaches in the first spring practice.
“They were all just going crazy,” Weaver said. “It seemed there was no way we could keep this intensity the whole spring. We thought they were just sending a message that first practice. Then it was the same at the second practice, and the third. It kept going.”
The Bulldogs went 5-7 in 2014, though three of those losses were by a touchdown or less. Last year brought a 9-4 mark, ending in their first SoCon title since 1992 and an upset of USC at Williams-Brice Stadium.
And even when Houston left for James Madison, the rise of Brent Thompson from offensive coordinator kept the continuity intact.
“Our coaches want us to compete, every rep,” Delaney said. “Before it was more of an individual/team — everybody wanted to do their own thing. Now we get things done as a whole. We compete, every drive, every play.”
Delaney’s rise has been notable. He was a North/South All-Star at receiver at Whale Branch, but found a new level on the other side of the ball.
“Dee had a lot of ability and raw talent,” Thompson said, “but has worked extremely hard to get to this point. He is an NFL prospect who has the ability to play at that level if he continues to develop his skills.”
Delaney said: “I still feel kind of raw at cornerback,” Delaney said. “It’s trusting what I see and playing fast.”
Weaver, whose father Doug spent time on the PGA Tour before settling in as a teaching pro, has provided steady play up front as a two-time All-SoCon second-team selection.
“Kyle has gotten so much out of his ability by developing himself in the weight room and developing his technique on the field to be an important contributor for us,” Thompson said.
Now the question is how far the Bulldogs might be able to go. Rematches are rare in football, but perhaps fitting considering October’s finish.
Kailik Williams, who plays alongside Delaney at roverback, snatched a Wofford option pitch out of the air and dashed 13 yards for a “pitch six” TD with 5:57 left. The game went to overtime, where the Bulldogs forced a Wofford fumble to seal it.
“I believe they believe it was a fluke,” Delaney said. “So this game, we get the opportunity to show them that we can beat them in a respectable way.”
Saturday’s winner will advance to face the survivor of No. 3 Jacksonville State and Youngstown State. The Bulldogs would have to travel to Jacksonville State, but a Youngstown State win would bring that game to Charleston.