Will BC's new offense be improved?
NEWTON, Mass. -- The start of practice. It's a fresh start, a new beginning.
In Latin, it's tabula rasa, which translates literally to "erased slate" and in the philosophy of John Locke referred to the mind not yet affected by experiences and impressions.
For the Boston College offense, that might be an apt description. With youth prevailing at quarterback, wide receiver and on the line, the Eagles hope they remain closer to blank slates than finished products, because last season they mostly failed to produce.
BC's offense in 2010
|Avg./Pct.||ACC rank||Nat'l rank|
|Total yards||299.1 yds||12||109|
|Third-down conversions||32.8 pct||12||107|
|ACC rank out of 12; national rank out of 120, according to cfbstats.com.|
The Eagles, who begin practice Monday, finished last in the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring average (18.5 points per game), total offense (299.1 yards per game) and third-down conversion percentage (32.8). They finished second-to-last in passing efficiency (105.9), first downs per game (15.0) and punt return average (4.6 yards per punt).
Yet, mainly because of the derring-do of the defense -- the nation's best against the run -- the Eagles managed to right the ship after a five-game losing streak by winning five games in a row to finish 7-6 and qualify for the school's 12th straight bowl game. (The Eagles lost 20-13 to No. 15 Nevada in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.)
After the season, a couple of things hinted at a reset on offense: offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill retired, and three offensive linemen graduated, including left tackle Anthony Castonzo, the school's all-time leader in consecutive starts (54), who was drafted in the first round by the Indianapolis Colts.
"We have to be more productive," coach Frank Spaziani said, sitting in his office the week before practice. "We have to make strides, no question."
And heading into his third year as the top man in Chestnut Hill, Spaziani believes the Eagles are positioned to do just that.
He hired Kevin Rogers, a 37-year coaching veteran who spent the previous five seasons with the NFL's Minnesota Vikings before being let go, to replace Tranquill. Spaziani thinks the Eagles have recruited well enough to plug the holes on the offensive line, and he says that a year's experience can only benefit the other young players forced into action in 2010. That includes quarterback Chase Rettig, who started nine games as a true freshman after Dave Shinskie couldn't find the zone, wide receiver Bobby Swigert and running back Andre Williams.
Of course, the Eagles will still have Montel Harris -- who is 126 yards from becoming the leading rusher in BC history and 1,003 from the same distinction in the ACC -- so despite Rogers' new system (which brings a pro-style philosophy and all new terminology) and the turnover on the line, not all will be new about the BC offense.
"We're advancing, besides that new stuff, after two years of whatever potholes that we've had to navigate through," Spaziani said.
Of the offensive philosophy, Rogers said, "We'll try to be as diverse as we possibly can so defenses can't get a bead on us."
And they're not holding anything back.
"We're going to attempt to put the pedal to the medal here, really challenge our guys so we don't get into a situation, 'Well, we can't do this, we can't do that,'" Rogers said. "We're going to lay it on our guys. If we want to do a lot of things, we've got to be accountable to know what we're doing."
That likely means that a lot of responsibility will rest on the shoulders of the 6-foot-3, 212-pound Rettig, who completed 100 of 195 passes (51.3 percent) for 1,238 yards, six touchdowns and nine interceptions last season.
"Chase was a true freshman playing last year," Spaziani said. "[He] did an adequate job and certainly showed that he has potential to move forward, but now we have to build on that."
Rogers agreed, saying he thinks Rettig has a chance to be a good player "but he's still in the learning process."
"I think he's bright, I don't think it's too big for him, I think he's got a burning desire to be a good player," Rogers said. "I think he's going to be proactive in his own development. So the only time he opens his playbook won't be just when he's with me, I think he'll go home and study things.
"I think he's got those things that I saw in the NFL that made those guys really good players. He's got the drive."
Harris has seen the difference in his young quarterback.
"Chase has grown a lot from last year," Harris said in a Conte Forum conference room last week. "The most important thing is his confidence. He's a lot more confident, relaxed in the pocket, and he's able to read defenses now like the back of his hand. He knows if they're in a Cover 2 what he has to do with the ball."
Harris said Rettig was more vocal during spring workouts, leaving no doubt who was in charge in the huddle and getting on teammates if they flubbed an assignment. And whereas last season it seemed Rettig was just trying to make enough plays to escape games with a victory, Harris said, "Now he's trying to hurt the defense and put a lot of points on the board."
That likely comes as music to the ears of Eagles fans and to the at-times beleaguered BC defense, which itself will look a little different this season. The D must deal with steep losses on the line, after Alex Albright, Damik Scafe and Brad Newman all graduated. It may rely more than ever on the player Spaziani calls "the Boy Wonder," middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
The offense knows it has to take on a heavier burden to ease the load on the defense.
"I can remember some games [the offense] would come three-and-out, defense just got off the field, having to go back out there and work again," Harris said. "Basically keeping us in the game all the way around until the fourth quarter. If we can just put some points on the board and take some pressure off the defense we can really do some things this year in the ACC."
After finishing 4-4 in the ACC last season, the Eagles have set lofty goals for themselves in 2011. They want to win every game they play, win the ACC championship game and make it to the Orange Bowl.
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"We've made it to a bowl game since I've been here," Harris said, "but we're trying to do better things than just making it to a bowl game."
For that to happen, the Eagles will have to navigate all the potholes ahead cleanly. Rettig must improve under center. The young receiving corps -- plus veterans Colin Larmond Jr., Ifeanyi Momah and Chris Pantale -- must take a step forward. One or more of the team's young running backs must prove worthy of spotting Harris a few carries to keep his legs fresh, especially since the stud runner tore a lateral meniscus in his knee and needed arthroscopic surgery late last season. And the offensive line must continue the tradition that's earned BC the nickname "O-Line U."
Like Spaziani, Harris thinks the latter is likely.
"I think they're ready," the senior said of the team's offensive linemen. "I've been working with them all summer and I've seen big improvements from a lot of the guys up front. Every day I ask them, 'Are y'all ready to make this trip? Are y'all ready to start the journey?' and they seem pretty confident. So we're going to see how it works out.
"I feel very confident about the offense as a whole."
The Eagles' offense isn't likely to morph suddenly into that of the Florida State Seminoles or the Virginia Tech Hokies. But if, pedal to the metal in Rogers' new system, the Eagles manage to be league-average or better on offense and remain league-leading on defense, they'll likely improve on their record from last season.
The offense knows it has its work cut out for it.
"There are no gimmes," Rogers said of the ACC. "We're certainly not going to be the type of team that can just throw their helmet out there and expect to win. That's not happening."
But Harris & Co. are happily throwing their hats into the ring.
"The ones I've got circled are [the games against] each team that beat us last year," Harris said. "We owe 'em all something."
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.