Team preview: Boston College
The Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook previews the 2006 Boston College Eagles.
It's hard not to be impressed by the level of consistency Tom O'Brien has achieved since arriving in Chestnut Hill before the 1997 season. The Cincinnati native endured two 4-7 seasons before he got his program off the ground with an 8-4 record in 1999. That proved to be the first of seven straight bowl seasons for the Eagles. In that span, Boston College has averaged more than eight wins a year -- never less than seven. The team's 43 wins over the last five seasons are the most in any five-year span in school history and the Eagles' current streak of six straight bowl wins is the longest active streak in college football. "I feel we've been very consistent," O'Brien said. "We're fortunate to have had the same staff in place. That not only helps when it comes to coaching, but it's also helped us get better and better when it comes to recruiting success." O'Brien's program bears an uncanny resemblance to the one George Welsh maintained at Virginia in the '80s and '90s. That's no surprise -- O'Brien is a Welsh protégé. He played defensive end for the Naval Academy, then joined Welsh on the staff at Annapolis in 1975. He moved with Welsh to Virginia and served on the Cavalier staff for 15 seasons -- the last six as offensive coordinator. During O'Brien's long tenure in Charlottesville, Virginia played in nine bowl games and at one point put together a streak of 10 seasons in a row with at least seven wins. But while Welsh's program at Virginia and O'Brien's tenure at Boston College were both marked by amazing consistency, the level of that consistency is just a shade below the very top level of college football. In 19 seasons at Virginia, Welsh's teams played in one major bowl, shared two ACC titles and won more than nine games just once -- a 10-win season in 1989. In his nine seasons at Boston College, the Eagles have yet to play in a major bowl, have not won a conference title and have not won more than nine games in a season. Maybe that's why, when asked about the chances of maintaining BC's streak of remarkable consistency, the veteran coach snapped, "Our goal is not to maintain ... we want to get better." That won't be easy after graduating (and almost all the Boston College seniors do graduate) the winningest senior class in school history, including nine starters and three players taken in the first four rounds of the NFL draft. "We lost a ton of experience and a lot of good football players," O'Brien said. "Plus, we lost a lot of leadership. We'll only have eight seniors on the whole team." But O'Brien is not bereft of talent or experience. He's got a huge junior class and proven veterans returning at a number of key positions, including quarterback, where junior Matt Ryan is unbeaten as a starter, running back, where Andre Callender and L.V. Whitworth combined for more than 1,500 rushing yards a year ago, and in the secondary, where three starters return. And even at spots where graduation losses were heavy, O'Brien has his program to the point where the replacements will -- for the most part -- be quality subs who have been waiting their turn to move up and not untested youngsters. "We've got good people back, if we can stay healthy," O'Brien said. "But in this league, you've got to get a few lucky bounces if you're going to win it." Even though last season was BC's first as a member of the expanded ACC, O'Brien knew a lot about the league from his days at Virginia. He also knew fellow newcomers Miami and Virginia Tech from his tenure in the Big East. "The new schools have made the ACC so much better," O'Brien said, quoting a statistic put together by the conference office that compared NFL draft picks from the ACC and Big East. In the last pre-expansion draft, the Big East had 28 players drafted to 27 for the ACC. But after last year, the ACC had 51 players taken to just 11 for the Big East. But O'Brien noted that 21 of those 51 ACC picks were from Big East refugees Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. "So without expansion, the Big East would have had 32 players picked to 30 for the ACC," O'Brien said. As good as the new ACC was last season, the Eagles were not very far from the top. In fact, BC tied Florida State -- which won the inaugural ACC championship game -- for the Atlantic Division title and only missed winning a spot in the title game when the Eagles couldn't hold a 17-14 fourth quarter lead in a loss to the Seminoles. The next step for O'Brien's program is only a small one.
O'Brien admits that without the injury problems that plagued starter Quinton Porter last season, Matt Ryan (6-5, 221) would have remained a backup. But the switch from the veteran Porter to the up-and-coming Ryan late last season seemed to energize the BC offense. "Matt is a very confident kid," O'Brien said. "He brought a little fire and shook things up." Ryan provided an early preview of his ability when he filled in for the injured Porter at Clemson and threw for 221 yards in the overtime victory over the Tigers. He gave another hint of his special abilities when he came off the bench against Wake Forest and threw for 134 yards and two touchdowns in a span of two minutes and 18 seconds to rally the Eagles from a 30-21 deficit to a 35-30 victory. Finally, with Boston College reeling after back-to-back losses to Virginia Tech and North Carolina, Ryan moved back in the starting lineup and engineered three straight season-ending victories -- over NC State, Maryland and Boise State. For the season, Ryan threw for 1,514 yards and eight touchdowns. He was 5-0 as a starter -- and that doesn't count the comeback victory over Wake Forest that he was responsible for. "He's grown a lot, but he still has a long way to go," offensive coordinator Dana Bible said of Ryan. "He's demonstrated that he's a quarterback who can have some success." Sophomore Chris Crane (6-5, 228), who completed 3-of-4 passes in limited duty last season, appears to be the next quarterback in the line of succession. A former all-state signal-caller in Pennsylvania, Crane appears to have the physical skills to contribute, but he's woefully short on experience. However, the Eagles' backup was impressive in the team's spring game, hitting 9-of-13 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns. "I like the progress Chris is making," Bible said. "When we were practicing for the bowl, we were able to give some of the younger guys quite a few snaps and you could see his development." If the Eagles have to dip deeper on the depth chart, junior David D'Ambrosio (6-2, 200) and walk-on junior Rob Swanke (6-3, 185) are available, although neither has more than scout-team experience. It's more likely that in a crisis, O'Brien would turn to one of his two highly regarded quarterbacks in this recruiting class: Ross Applegate (6-6, 200) from Marietta, Ga., and Billy Flutie (6-2, 176) from Natick, Mass. Flutie, a three-sport star who also excelled in basketball and baseball, is the nephew of Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie, probably the most famous player in BC history.
The Eagles boast a solid tandem of proven tailbacks, backed up by a couple of youngsters with big-play potential. Juniors Andre Callender (5-11, 204) and L.V. Whitworth (6-0, 220) shared the position a year ago and while neither claimed any all-star honors on his own, between them they provided an all-star caliber year at the position. "There was a time when we had to bring them along," Bible said of his tailback tandem. "Now they've played a lot of football and we're counting on them for a lot." Whitworth provided 807 yards and five touchdowns, while Callender added 708 yards and three touchdowns. That means that between them, they provided 1,515 yards rushing (at almost five yards a carry) and eight touchdowns -- and that doesn't count 45 receptions for 385 more yards. "This should be a position of strength for us," O'Brien said. Although Whitworth and Callender have alternated throughout their careers, Bible wouldn't rule out the chance of seeing both line up together at times this season. O'Brien has high hopes that sophomore A.J. Brooks (6-0, 199), who sat out last season, can provide even more firepower at the tailback position. The speedster from Orlando, Fla., rushed for 319 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman in 2004, averaging 5.6 yards a carry. He started one game and rushed for 160 yards against UMass. "Some injuries held him back in spring, but we expect to see him right there competing for a starting job," Bible said. Senior Mark Palmer (6-3, 245) returns as the team's starting fullback, where his role is primarily to block and serve as a pass receiver. Palmer didn't get a single carry last season as a runner, but he caught eight passes for 40 yards. Junior J. Survival Ross (6-0, 207) has been converted from tailback -- where he carried for 71 yards last season -- to take over for Paddy Ryan as the backup to Palmer. Does the move of a former tailback to the position signal the possibility that O'Brien might finally let his fullback carry the ball? "We discuss the opportunity to put in the fullback run every spring," O'Brien said. "But when the vote comes to handing the ball to our fullback or one of our tailbacks, the vote always comes out in favor of the tailback. I don't know what the future holds, but maybe we'll give the fullback the opportunity to carry the ball down the road."
The Eagles' deepest graduation losses came at the receiving positions, where O'Brien must replace his top two wide receivers and his starting tight end. "No, I'm not real comfortable there," O'Brien said when asked about his receiving spots. "We lost over 80 catches there." The departure of Will Blackmon (51 catches for 763 yards and four touchdowns) and Larry Lester (37 catches for 392 yards and two TDs) leaves senior Tony Gonzales (5-11, 190) as the team's most experienced wide-out. He's not bad; he made 28 catches for 414 yards and five touchdowns last season. "Gonzales did a great job as our No. 3 receiver," O'Brien said. "The question is, can he step up and be the No. 1 guy?" O'Brien's other options have a lot more promise than experience. Sophomore Brandon Robinson (5-11, 191), a former prep All-American, turned in an impressive spring after getting a taste of action last season -- seven catches for 94 yards and a touchdown. Senior Taylor Sele (6-0, 203) had 14 catches for 142 yards after recording just one catch in each of his first two seasons. Junior Kevin Challenger (5-9, 177), a Canadian, added 16 catches for 184 yards and a touchdown. redshirt freshmen Clarence Megwa (6-1, 205) or Rich Gunnell (5-11, 200) provide more options. Both caught touchdown passes in the spring game. In fact, Megwa was the game's leading receiver with seven catches for 95 yards. "This isn't the first time we've been in this position," Bible said. "Nobody has ever been a starter. We have guys who have played, but everybody will be in a new role." The Eagles still appear to be solid at tight end, despite the graduation of 12-game starter Chris Miller. Both junior Ryan Thompson (6-4, 254) and sophomore Ryan Purvis (6-4, 261) saw significant action in backup roles last season. In addition, junior Jon Loyte (6-6, 262) is available after sitting out last season. The former prep All-American saw extensive action in his two seasons at Vanderbilt before transferring closer to his Gloucester, Mass., home. Another possibility is sophomore Trey Koziol (6-5, 259), also a prep All-American who saw plenty of action in 2004 but sat out all of last season with a knee injury.
Neither size nor experience will be a problem for a BC line that returns three starters and two top reserves from last season and averages more than 300 pounds a man. But O'Brien is worried about replacing center Patrick Ross, the anchor of last year's line and a player who finished his career with 34 straight starts. "I wasn't happy last spring," O'Brien said. "I thought one or two guys would step up and assume leadership roles. It's not like we're replacing the whole line. We have three starters and some other guys who have been in the program and played. But I just don't feel like we found the other pieces of the puzzle." Actually, the only position that is absolutely solid going into preseason workouts is right guard, where senior Josh Beekman (6-2, 325) is a rock after starting 24 straight games at the position. Last year, he earned second-team All-ACC honors last year. "[Beekman] was a great contributor to our success last season," O'Brien said. "Beekman is the only guy [on the line] who hasn't moved. We don't have any thought of moving him anywhere else. O'Brien knows that senior James Marten (6-8, 315) and equally massive junior Gosder Cherilus (6-7, 320) will also start somewhere on the line. He's just not sure where. He came out of spring with Marten, who has started 24 straight games at left guard, moving to left tackle with Cherilus, who has started 24 straight games at right tackle, remaining at his old spot. But that could change. Junior Kevin Sheridan (6-3, 296) is tentatively penciled in at center, while junior Ryan Poles (6-4, 310) is holding the right guard spot. Both saw extensive duty last season in backup roles. So did juniors Ty Hall (6-5, 296) and Tom Anevski (6-4, 301), who are also in the mix for a starting job. "We have a good start with Marten, Cherilus and Beekman coming back," O'Brien said. "Between Poles, Aneveski, Sheridan and Hall, some combination of those four guys will have to work in and we'll see how the offensive line fits together." O'Brien will also be looking for a quartet of youngsters to provide some depth. He'll give sophomores Carlos Huggins (6-6, 302) and Clif Ramsey (6-6, 305) a chance, along with redshirt freshmen Pat Sheil (6-6, 270) and Matt Tennant (6-4, 274).
Junior Ryan Ohliger (5-9, 197) entered his sophomore year with high expectations after turning in an impressive season as a freshman, when he connected on 14 field goals, including four-of-five from beyond 40 yards. But he struggled in 2005, even losing his job at one point to senior Will Troost. Ohliger converted just 9-of-14 field goal tries -- a slightly deceiving stat, because he was 5-of-5 inside 30 yards and just 4-of-9 from beyond that range. His 2005 long kick was just 39 yards. But O'Brien was encouraged by Ohliger's improvement late in the season. He did kick two short field goals in the bowl victory over Boise State. "I think Ohliger got back in the groove at the end of the season," O'Brien said. "Hopefully, we can keep him going in the fall." If not, O'Brien doesn't have a lot of options. Walk-on sophomore Steve Aponavicius (5-10, 165) has never kicked in a game.
There's no use pretending that the graduation loss of All-American defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka is anything other than a major blow. Players come and go in college football, but players with the talent of Kiwanuka (9.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss as a senior) don't come around all that often. "He was a great player," BC defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani said. "Is there another Kiwanuka coming up? No ... that just means the other guys have to step up." Unfortunately, Kiwanuka wasn't the Eagles' only loss up front. Tackle Al Washington (5.0 sacks, 9.0 tackles for loss) also graduated, along with backups Jeff Burns and Jake Ottolini. O'Brien looks at his line losses and the departure of two starting linebackers with concern. "That front seven took a big hit," he said. "I think the major concern for us in the front seven is that they are all underclassmen." The Eagles aren't totally devoid of experience up front. Junior end Nick Larkin (6-4, 252) and junior tackle B.J. Raji (6-1, 337) return after starting last season. The massive Raji proved himself an excellent run stopper (27 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss), while Larkin took advantage of all the attention Kiwanuka got on the other side to record six sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. "Both have played well and the natural progression is for guys to get better as they get older," Spaziani said. Sophomores Ron Brace (6-3, 343) and Keith Willis (6-1, 266) will get the first shot at filling Washington's spot. Both saw backup duty last season, with Willis recording 20 tackles and 5.0 tackles for loss in nine games before he was injured. They'll be pushed by junior Justin Bell (6-3, 316), who is trying to come back after missing last season with an injury. He saw considerable action in 2003 and 2004 in a backup role. The top candidate to replace Kiwanuka -- well, let's say the top candidate to fill Kiwanuka's starting spot -- missed spring drills with a shoulder injury. O'Brien expects sophomore Jim Ramella (6-4, 244), who had 15 tackles, including three tackles for loss, as a freshman last season, to be fully recovered for the start of the season. In Ramella's absence, redshirt freshman Austin Giles (6-3, 283) impressed the BC coaches in spring drills and will also get a chance to vie for a starting role in preseason. O'Brien has a number of other young line candidates coming up the pipeline. Sophomores Justin Tougas (6-6, 282) and Jerry Willette (6-5, 261) and redshirt freshmen Brendan Deska (6-5, 243), Allan Smith (6-1, 207) and Nick Rossi (6-6, 270) all have a chance to contribute.
It's difficult to measure the value of junior Brian Toal (6-1, 238) to the Boston College defense. Not only is the New Jersey product an all-star quality linebacker -- with the departure of Kiwanuka, he's almost certainly the Eagles' top defender -- but he's also the team's short-yardage specialist as an offensive back. It's kind of strange that on a team where the fullback never carries the ball, a linebacker would get 23 rushes in 2005 -- six for touchdowns and most of the others for first downs. He's so good at the role that the team's defensive coordinator doesn't mind lending his one returning linebacker starter to the offense. "If he can get the yard or two needed for a first down to keep our offense on the field, that's that much longer that we're off the field," Spaziani said. When the defense is on the field, Toal's presence is vital. He recorded 53 tackles last season, including seven tackles for loss. "He's an instinctive player," Spaziani said. "Obviously, he can run. But more important is that he's the son of a coach and he understands what we're trying to do -- and what the other guy's trying to do against him." Toal's importance is multiplied by the graduations of middle linebacker Ray Henderson and Ricky Brown on the outside. But the Eagles have replacements on hand. Junior Jolonn Dunbar (6-1, 224) was Henderson's top backup last season, recording 50 tackles, including five for loss, while junior Tyronne Pruitt (5-11, 218) rotated with Brown at one outside spot and recorded 37 hits, including two for loss. "I never felt there was too much drop-off when they were in," Spaziani said. "They bring different strengths." Spaziani's big concern is depth at the position -- it's all very well for Dunbar and Pruitt to replace Henderson and Brown. But who replaces Dunbar and Pruitt? Sophomores Kevin Adams (6-2, 205) and Robert Francois (6-2, 235) will increase their roles after combining for 48 tackles last season. And redshirt freshman Mike McLaughlin (6-0, 245) was impressive in the spring and figures to play his way into the rotation this season. Junior Ray Lankford (6-1, 231) and sophomore Garrett Seeger (6-0, 193), who have played little so far in their career, will join redshirt freshman Michael Kozicz (6-0, 234) in a bid to earn playing time.
For all the question marks up front, the Eagles enjoy an equal number of answers in the secondary. Three of four starters return, along with four other players who possess considerable experience. "That's always an area of concern," Spaziani said. "No matter how good you are up front, it can all be erased if they can throw over you." His big concern is finding a replacement for Jazzman Williams, a three-year starter who had four interceptions and 18 pass breakups in his career. But the replacement candidates are almost as experienced as Williams was -- senior Larry Anam (6-0, 192) and junior Taji Morris (5-10, 184) have both started before. In fact, Anam started six games last season at safety and has played extensively for three seasons. Whoever wins the job in fall practice will join returning starter DeJaun Tribble (5-9, 189) at corner, along with returning safety starters Jamie Silva (5-11, 205) and Ryan Glasper (6-0, 207). Silva led the team in tackles as a sophomore, recording 87 hits (60 solo tackles) and one interception. "He's been getting better and better," Spaziani said. "He's just a blue-collar guy -- a tough football player." Glasper recorded two interceptions, three pass breakups and 43 tackles as a junior, while Tribble put up the most impressive numbers of all: two interceptions, six pass breakups, a fumble recovery and 57 tackles -- the third-most on the team and an amazing number for a cornerback. "We have a lot of experience coming back [in the secondary]." O'Brien said. "We expect them to get better." Depth will come from the loser of the Anam-Morris battle, plus from sophomores Paul Anderson (6-1, 207) and Brad Mueller (5-11, 175). Both saw action last year and Anderson even got an interception against Army. He added two more picks in the Eagles' spring game. redshirt freshmen Razzie Smith (5-9, 174), a track star from Winter Garden, Fla., and Marcellus Bowman (6-1, 194), a former all-state player from Ohio, will also be in the mix, along with senior Brian Young (6-1, 195), who has seen most of his action on special teams since transferring to BC from Georgetown two years ago.
Junior Johnny Ayers (6-0, 196) missed spring drills to play for the Boston College baseball team, but after two seasons as the Eagles' starting punter, O'Brien already has a pretty good idea of what Ayers can do. The Virginia prep product averaged 39.3 yards a kick two years ago as a true freshman and improved that average to 41.1 yards in his sophomore season. He put 19 kicks inside the 20 and just five into the end zone for touchbacks. Ayers is the only player to punt for BC in the last two seasons, and unless he's injured, he'll be the Eagles' only punter this season, too. If something happens to him, incoming freshman Billy Flutie is penciled in as a backup.
O'Brien has some work to do to improve BC's special team performance. It starts at long snapper, where Francois Brochu handled the job for three seasons. O'Brien was so concerned about filling the spot that he used a scholarship on Jack Geiser (6-2, 235), a Texan who was recruited specifically for his long-snapping abilities. The Eagles need to work out some kinks in their kick protection and kick coverage. Ayers had four kicks blocked last season and the BC punt coverage was among the weakest in the ACC. The kickoff return coverage, on the other hand, was among the best in the league as opponents averaged just 17.0 yards a return. And even though departed wide receiver Will Blackmon was the team's top return man, O'Brien spread the job out enough that he has plenty of experienced weapons returning in that area. In fact, cornerback DeJuan Tribble had eight more yards on three less punt returns than Blackman a year ago -- an excellent average of 11.0 yards a return. Tribble also returned eight kickoffs for an average of 18.8 yards a return.
The question about O'Brien's program is not whether the Eagles can be competitive in the ACC this season -- that's going to happen. No, the real question is whether after seven seasons on the brink, O'Brien can push the Eagles over the top -- to a championship ... a major bowl ... a top-10 national finish.
The Eagles were close last season. It's easy to look at close losses to Florida State and North Carolina and say that with a little more luck, the 2005 Boston College Eagles could have been 10-1 and playing in the ACC title game. The only trouble is that, if you play that game, it's just as easy to look at close victories over Clemson (in overtime) and Wake Forest (erased a 30-21 deficit in the final four minutes) and suggest that with a little less luck the Eagles would have been 6-5 and scrambling for a bowl bid. No, Boston College got what it deserved last season, at least in the regular season. The Eagles were probably the ACC's third or fourth best team. How they ended up in Boise, playing in the league's sixth-best bowl tie-in, is a long story that has more to do with bowl politics and fan support than anything that happened on the field. Boston College doesn't have the rabid fan base of a Clemson or a Virginia Tech or even an NC State. If the Eagles want to avoid the blue field in Boise in coming years, they have to establish themselves as a dominant team -- not just a competitive one. That's going to be tough to do this season with so many questions up front on defense and at the receiving corps. Another seven-eight-nine win season would seem a more reasonable prediction than suggesting that this is the year O'Brien's program takes the next step. But there's a funny thing about programs that are as stable as the one at Boston College. It's easier to make long-term predictions. With just eight seniors in this year's rotation, it's not outlandish to suggest that the Eagles' breakout season is a year away -- in 2007.
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