It was a topsy turvy year for Boston College’s vaunted defense. Just a year after finishing atop the nation in overall defense, they lost defensive back Justin Simmons and Steven Daniels to the NFL, while Don Brown cashed in his chips and headed to Michigan. Even with those losses, there were still high expectations for Jim Reid and his crew. Boston College returned a ton of talent, and while they weren’t expected to be the best in the nation again, a good-very good defense was expected. Did they deliver? Let’s take a look.
A lot of credit has to be given to new defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni on the job he did with this group. There clearly was talent up and down this group, but the bowl game against Maryland showed what damage they could do as a unit. Were there games that they got swallowed up? Yes, see the VT game. But overall this was the strongest unit game in and game out.
The Eagles had four edge rushers that they could cycle in and out to maximize the pressure they were getting on the quarterback. Kevin Kavalec ended the season very strong, with 4.5 sacks, four of which came in November and the bowl game. Zach Allen appears ready to break out in 2017, finishing this season with 6 sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Wyatt Ray did a fine job as a situation, rotational guy, and of course there was Harold Landry. The junior put together a legendary season with 17 sacks, and causing problems for every line he faced. Of course the biggest question here is whether he will be returning in 2017. Another big question I have is what this line will be able to do without him. There is talent here, but many times the sacks and pressure came because the opposing line had to double team Landry. If he’s gone, will guys like Allen and Ray be able to get pressure?
In terms of the defensive tackles, BC got the play they expected from Truman Gutapfel. Playing the nose he was impossible to block for the lesser teams the Eagles played, caused damage against the peer schools, and against better teams he struggled. What struck me as piece to build on are the other two tackles. All the talk of lack of depth up front doesn’t worry me as much as in previous year. If Noa Merritt can build on his bowl game, he could grow to be very dangerous. Ray Smith also in his first year as a starter did a nice job up front. For first year players in this system, I think both could certainly grow into solid starters moving forward.
This group came in with the biggest expectations, but showed some inconsistencies during the season. Matt Milano and Connor Strachan both showed that they could make plays, Milano using his speed and Strachan as a sure tackler. Milano concerned me at points by taking some funky roots on the ball which led to some big plays against the defense. Milano definitely could see a role in the NFL after he graduates. He fits that hybrid safety-linebacker mold that is very popular with pro defenses, either as a starter or on special teams (he did have a blocked punt this year). Strachan seems ready to step up to be the next premier linebacker for the Eagles. Smart, sure tackler, he might step up to be a star next year.
Weak side linebacker Ty Schwab did a nice job as a starter this year as well, especially in his first year as a consistent starter. He finished the year third on the Eagles in tackling, never really making huge plays, but doing what he had to do. With Milano graduating, it appears that rising sophomore Sharieff Grice will be moving in at the mike in 2017. He appeared in a handful of games, and made some plays, including his first collegiate sack.
Apparently Justin Simmons was the glue to this squad, because they certainly took a step back in 2016. In 2015 we saw an elite squad that could shut down even the best passing offenses. That didn’t happen this year. There were lots of errors and penalties that made them look very pedestrian at times, but they also made big plays. BC’s two ACC wins were capped off by interceptions (Lukas Denis and John Johnson) and even against Maryland they made a big play or two.
John Johnson clearly was the most consistent in the backfield. He led the team with three interceptions, all of which came against ACC opponents, and finished second on the team in tackles. Isaac Yiadom, Will Harris, Kam Moore, and Taj-Amir Torres all made plays during the season, but frustratingly they also all had some very tough beats.
The biggest issue I had with this unit was the time’s they got beat. There were numerous times the defensive backs were turned the wrong way, or didn’t turn away at all. Certainly there were times they got blasted by Mike Williams of Clemson an other world talent, or Amba Etta-Tawo of Syracuse, but there were other times if they just turned around they could have made a play. Hopefully in 2017 the coaching staff can fix this and get this group back to the level they were playing at in 2015.