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5 things to know before Boston College football opens the season

COMMENTARY

Back in December, when Jeff Hafley became Boston College’s head football coach, he inherited a team coming off a 6-7 season eager to establish itself as a contender in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

He knew that as a head coach he’d have more responsibility and would have to delegate and balance many tasks at once. What he didn’t know, however, was that he’d also have to deal with a pandemic that would initially put the entire season in jeopardy. 

Nine months have passed since his opening press conference, and Hafley has helped the Eagles stand out nationally for their coronavirus testing success. Anything could change at any moment, but as of now, the Eagles are slated to play 11 games this season.

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Hafley has also fueled both discussions and action surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. While navigating both of these situations off the field, he’s worked diligently to help the staff land both transfers and recruits, implement a new system, and fine-tune the team’s depth chart.

It’s been an extremely eventful and start to his tenure at BC – in some ways he expected and in others he never could have anticipated. This weekend, Hafley will add a new, and rather significant, item to his steadily growing Boston College checklist: coach a game.

“I’m just very fortunate to be here around a good group of guys and have fun with them and be able to coach football,” Hafley said earlier this week. “When it seemed like we weren’t going to be able to play at times, to be a couple days away from getting on a plane and going to coach in a football game again, it’s awesome.”

BC is set to open the season at Duke on Saturday, Sept. 19, at noon. Duke is coming off a 27-13 loss to Notre Dame last weekend and was picked to finish 12th in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Eagles were slotted right behind them, at 13th.

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It’s often easy to overreact after one game, but the way the Eagles play Saturday could end up foreshadowing how they fare the rest of the season. BC has many new players on both sides of the ball, and the opener against the Blue Devils will finally give fans a glimpse into what the team they’ve seen assembled over the last nine months will actually look like.

“It feels really good,” captain Max Richardson said. “We’ve come such a long day from the time we got sent home in March to where we are now. Every morning, I just feel blessed to be able to wake up and strap it up. We’re overly excited. We’re ready to go and get down to Duke and play our first game.”

The Eagles have conducted over 2,000 COVID-19 tests and only one came back positive.

In case you’ve been secluded on a beach all summer and are just now getting back into college football, here’s a quick two-minute drill to get you up to speed: Among Power Five conferences, the ACC and Big 12 are currently holding seasons, the SEC is starting in late September, the Big Ten is now beginning in late October, and the status of the PAC-12 remains uncertain.

Ten of BC’s 11 games are against ACC foes – including 2020 ACC school Notre Dame. Here’s the Eagles’ schedule, as it stands as of Wednesday, Sept. 16:

Saturday, Sept. 19: at Duke, 12 p.m.

Saturday, Sept. 26: vs. Texas State, 6 p.m.

Saturday, Oct. 3: vs. North Carolina, TBD

Saturday, Oct. 10: vs. Pitt, TBD

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Saturday, Oct. 17: at Virginia Tech, TBD

Saturday, Oct. 24: vs. Georgia Tech, TBD

Saturday, Oct. 31: at Clemson, TBD

Saturday, Nov. 7: at Syracuse, TBD

Saturday, Nov. 14: vs. Notre Dame, TBD

Friday, Nov. 27: vs. Louisville, TBD

Saturday, Dec. 5: at Virginia, TBD

The Eagles have conducted over 2,000 COVID-19 tests along the way and only had one positive case back in the summer. The unnamed player has since fully recovered. Hafley said he’s proud of all of the players and coaches for buying in, and he’s thrilled the Eagles will be rewarded for their efforts.

“Every time I get those all negative, all negative, all negative, all negative, I get fired up like it’s Christmas again,” Hafley said.

Tight end Hunter Long lightheartedly rated his experience during quarantine as an 11 out of 10 on the boredom scale, and he said he’s thrilled to be back out there playing football. He believes the Eagles are in the situation they’re in because of the way they’ve held one another accountable.

“I think we did one of the best jobs in the country adapting,” Long said.

As of Wednesday, the situation is still positive for the football team specifically, but it’s possible the COVID-19 outbreak on campus could have an effect on the football team. According to the Boston Globe, between Aug. 16 and Sept. 9, the campus reported 81 undergraduates testing positive.

“The situation appears to have all the indications of a perfect COVID-19 storm in the making,” Globe reporters Laura Krantz, Bob Hohler, and Deirdre Fernandes wrote

Time will tell whether the Eagles make it through the season. For now, they’ll play Saturday and go from there.

They’ve spent time discussing issues surrounding racial injustice.

Richardson, the team’s standout middle linebacker, said his parents always preached to him to do his research, do his reading, and know what’s going on in the world. Sometimes during breaks throughout the day, he tunes into the news in the locker room, and he often shares what he learns with his teammates.

“We do try and have these conversations that are important in our world today,” Richardson said. “It’s a unique experience, and I think it’s helped me develop the leadership that hasn’t been as important in the past. It’s normally about football and going to meetings and getting the schoolwork done. Now there’s a second part to that, where it’s about the rights and the wrongs in the world.”

After Rusten Sheskey shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back in Wisconsin, professional and collegiate athletes took action in the following days to demand change. The Milwaukee Bucks started a chain reaction that ultimately led to teams across several professional leagues boycotting games. 

The Eagles canceled practice Thursday, Aug. 27, to discuss racial injustice. They met and spoke about educating one another, maintaining dialogue to help unify the community, and sparking change.

“Things do need to change,” Hafley said at the time. “There’s too much hate, and there needs to be more love. It’s sad. I’m very, very proud of our football team and our coaching staff.”

The offense has both new and familiar faces.

While the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement continue to be major discussion points, there is – at the moment – some football to be played this weekend. The Eagles have plenty of familiar faces on their roster, and they also have many newcomers who figure to play a key role.

Starting on offense, Boston College’s offensive line is widely considered to be the team’s biggest strength. On the depth chart released Monday, left tackle Zion Johnson, center Alec Lindstrom, right guard Ben Petrula, and right tackle Tyler Vrabel are all listed as starters, while Christian Mahogany and Nate Emer are listed as co-starters at left guard.

Johnson, Lindstrom, Petrula, and Vrabel all started last year, and Johnson and Petrula are captains and were named to the Outland Trophy Watch list that highlights standout interior linemen across the country.

“You guys all know what the offensive line has been like around here, and truthfully I think it all starts up front,” Hafley said. “If we’re going to do the things that we want to do, we’re going to have to build it up front. To me, that’s going to be who we are on offense, no matter how many times we throw it or how many times we run it.”

At running back, David Bailey will receive the bulk of the carries. Bailey racked up seven touchdowns on the ground last year and was a dependable, starting-caliber backup to standout AJ Dillon. Dillon, who is now on the Green Bay Packers, got the majority of the touches and the headlines, for good reason, but Bailey also proved what he can do. Now he’ll have a chance to do it as the feature back, alongside Travis Levy and Pat Garwo.

While establishing the run is a priority, so too is sprinkling in explosive plays whenever possible. With a new offense and a variety of new weapons, the Eagles have the potential to offer a different dynamic this season.

“We don’t ever want to lose the physicality of being able to play power football, but we also want to be able to play wide open and put guys in a position to be successful,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti said.

Redshirt junior Dennis Grosel and redshirt sophomore Notre Dame transfer Phil Jurkovec are both listed as potential starters at quarterback on the depth chart. Grosel filled in admirably for Anthony Brown last season, starting seven games and establishing himself as a steady leader and reliable player. Jurkovec, after months of uncertainty regarding his eligibility status, joins the Eagles after a storied high school career and minimal action at Notre Dame.

“I was expecting an answer weeks or months before,” Jurkovec said. “There was a little bit of frustration, and I was glad there were people on my side that wanted to see at least the NCAA come out with a decision. In the end, they ruled for me, so I’m grateful for that.”

As of Wednesday, Hafley hasn’t announced a starter. It’s possible one will emerge as the clear No. 1 option, and there’s also always the outside chance he’ll use some sort of platoon system to keep defenses guessing series to series. He said he encourages healthy competition and believes it’s important to have players push one another all season.

Regardless of who starts, Grosel and Jurkovec are excited about the receivers and running backs they have around them. Graduate student Kobay White, Ohio State transfer Jaelen Gill, Long, sophomore Zay Flowers, and sophomore Ethon Williams all figure to play a key role. 

“We’ve got a ton of playmakers and some real speed, so we’ll definitely have those big plays,” Jurkovec said. 

The defense is capable of building upon last season’s inconsistent showing.

Last season, the Eagles’ inexperience on defense was a recurring topic throughout the season. BC made some strides throughout the season, but the players were the first to admit it wasn’t the type of consistency they expected from themselves.

The Eagles allowed over 32 points per game and 285 passing yards per game, and their opponents scored 49 total touchdowns. Teams such as Kansas, Louisville, and Florida State put up tons of points, and BC’s solid offensive output wasn’t enough to compensate for its defensive shortcomings.

This year, with Hafley in the picture and several returners back, the Eagles should have a chance to piece together a better season on defense. Hafley, who has extensive NFL experience, is widely regarded as one of the top defensive minds in football at any level.

The Eagles will be led by Richardson, who has already established himself as one of the top middle linebackers in the ACC and should put together another monster season. Strong side linebacker John Lamot and weak side linebacker Isaiah McDuffie will join forces with Richardson to form one of the more experienced linebacking corps in the conference. 

BC’s depth chart —BC Football

Brandon Sebastian (RC), Josh DeBerry (RC), Jason Maitre (RC and LC), Elijah Jones (LC), Tate Haynes (LC), Jahmin Muse (SS), Deon Jones (SS and FS), and Mike Palmer (FS) are all names to keep an eye on in the secondary – which was perhaps the area BC struggled most last season and is the area Hafley specializes in most. The way the secondary plays could end up having a major effect on the way BC plays as a whole.

The starting defensive linemen are currently Shita Sillah (LE), Luc Bequette (DT), Marcus Valdez (RE) and John Lamot (SLB). Chibueze Onwuka, TJ Rayam, and Ryan Betro are battling it out for the starting spot at nose tackle, and Brandon Barlow (LE), Cam Horsley (DT), Bryce Morais (RE), and Joe Sparacio (SLB) are all in the mix at their respective positions.

Bequette, a 6-foot-2, 290-pound grad transfer from Cal who just arrived at BC a few weeks ago, could be an immediate contributor and difference-maker on defense.

He said it’s been a quick yet smooth transition, and he’s starting to get the playbook down and get enough physical reps. BC checked every box for Bequette, whose biggest priority was ensuring he could play one more season in college.

“I really wanted to feel comfortable with the coaching staff,” Bequette said Tuesday. “It felt, in every aspect, like the Cal of the East Coast.”

On special teams, Aaron Boumerhi (PK), Danny Longman (PK), Stephen Ruiz (PK), Grant Carlson (P/H), John Tessitore (H), Aidan Livingston (LS), and Donovan Cahill (LS) are all names to know. Levy, Flowers, and Gill are all extremely quick and explosive and should make returning kicks and punts a strength for the Eagles.

Saturday will provide a glimpse into what this team will look like.

It’s always fun to guess how certain teams will do throughout a season and how various teams in a given conference stack up, but the truth is that it’s almost impossible to do so until games have been played.

Even then, it can be difficult, but as of Saturday afternoon, we’ll all have a much better sense at what this Boston College team will actually look like. Entering the season as the 13th-best team in the conference according to the ACC preseason poll can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how it’s framed.

The Eagles could theoretically struggle in a new era with an inconsistent defense, or they could defy expectations and end up as a contender in the ACC. Time will tell, but Saturday is a major milestone for a team looking to prove it can stack up with the elite.

“Our kids are really excited to play in a real game,” Hafley said. “They’re excited to play against somebody besides ourselves.”

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