By Mike Hoffman
Media Relations Director
They have adjusted to new positions and overcome injuries. Four of them are from Florida yet rarely crossed paths before coming to The Citadel. They are majoring in disciplines as diverse as electrical engineering, psychology and sports administration.
There is a team captain and a self-confessed goofball.
Look at each of them separately and you will see normal, if a bit oversized, college students. But upon closer inspection you will find a quintet that has coalesced into the front wall that paves the way for one of the top ground games in FCS football.
When the 2013 season kicked off last Saturday night against Charleston Southern, Bob Bodine, The Citadel’s offensive line coach, had a luxury afforded by very few coaches in the nation – a group of five, fifth-year seniors who are charged with triggering the Bulldogs’ potent triple option attack.
“There’s an awful lot of experience and it expands what types and numbers of plays we can run,” said Bodine, who is also The Citadel’s offensive coordinator. “It also helps with the younger guys. They are role models who can show them how we practice and at what tempo.”
Unlike in more conventional offenses, guards are the prized possession in the triple option, and The Citadel is blessed with a pair of three-year starters in Keith Carter and Jim Knowles. Carter is back at his left guard spot after suffering a torn Achilles tendon last season against Wofford and is in his second year as a team captain.
Carter came to The Citadel as a defensive lineman and played in 11 games there as a redshirt freshman in 2010. The following spring he was asked to move to the other side of the line. Some players might have balked at the transition, but Carter’s unselfishness at making the switch paid off as he thrived in his new position.
Three years later he relishes being a part of such a close-knit group.
“We’ve known one another for a while and know each other’s personalities,” said Carter of fifth-year linemates Knowles, Cullen Brown, Devin Bice and Robert Finke. “We wouldn’t be able to communicate as well as we do if we didn’t have that history.”
Knowles shares the right side of the offensive line with Cullen Brown and echoes Carter’s sentiments about the importance of communication at the position.
“I’ve been playing next to Cullen for two years; I know the ins and outs of what he wants to do. If a linebacker blitzes or we want to make a switch, we’ll pass it along to each other.
“The same thing is true in the meeting room,” Knowles continued. “I ask questions, he asks questions and we feed off each other. Over time we’ve started to know the way the other thinks.”
Knowles has the reputation as the quiet one of the bunch, but his contribution does not go unnoticed by his coach. “No one is more solid on the team than Jimmy,” said Bodine. “He isn’t flashy and gets overlooked at times, but we know how important he is to our success.”
Like Carter, Brown was established at another position before joining the offensive line fraternity. He played in 20 of 22 games with 11 starts at tight end and was ready to open the 2012 campaign at that position when a fortuitous conversation between him and Bodine took place.
“We were having some issues at right tackle, and at the same time Cullen asked me about the packages we were using at tight end,” remembered Bodine. “I told him I would try to get him more reps at tight end, but if he switched to right tackle he would get every rep. He agreed to the move and the transition was easy. Both Cullen and Keith have put the team before themselves and flourished on the offensive line.”
While Brown is an intense competitor on the field and knows when it’s time to get serious, he is equally regarded as a “happy-go-lucky” sort of personality away from the gridiron. Although that doesn’t quite fit into the traditional image of a Citadel cadet, Bodine appreciates what it means to the team.
“I love his personality. He has varying interests and tastes in just about everything in life,” said Bodine. “He is a surfer who likes heavy metal. He doesn’t exactly have two personalities but you can’t stereotype him. He enjoys having fun and that is good for our group of linemen and the team as a whole.”
Versatility is also a prized trait among offensive linemen, and the Bulldogs have a pair of players who have seen action at multiple places up front.
Bice was recruited as a tight end and then was a reserve right tackle for two years before settling in next to Carter on the left side a year ago and starting all 11 games. Finke has played in 16 games his first three seasons and can be used at both guard positions, easing a strain on the team’s offensive line depth chart.
Both understand the importance of team camaraderie as it applies to those in the trenches at practice and on game day.
“The most important thing is having their trust and knowing that they trust me,” said Finke. “That is key especially when you’re running an offense like the triple option. We’ve been together since our freshman year building that bond.”
Bice couldn’t agree more.
“The big thing is to trust the person next to you; that he knows and is able to execute his assignment and that mentally he will be there for you. That is the case with us. We are always together, eating together and hanging out at the house.”
With a talent, experienced group The Citadel has along the offensive line, another finish among the SoCon and national leaders in rushing is almost inevitable.
“We have a lot of chemistry, and it’s going to be a lot of fun,” said Carter. “I can’t wait.”