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Boston College Football: Linebackers & Defensive Line Preview 2023

NCAA Football: ACC Media Days Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

With the season opener against NIU rapidly approaching, we are continuing our breakdown of BC’s position groups for the upcoming season. After taking a look at Hafley’s secondary, we will now shift to the linebacker and defensive line groups. With only two transfers into both groups combined, there will be a lot of continuity and familiar faces — but plenty of room for improvement and development.


The Veterans:

Boston College got a big boost when Vinny DePalma announced he would return for his sixth (!) season of college football this fall. The super senior led BC in tackles last season, posting 87 while also chipping in a sack and a forced fumble. He is the presumptive starter at the Mike position. While he is somewhat limited athletically, he brings a wealth of experience, is a clear leader in the huddle, and will help quarterback the defense. His return ensures a proven commodity in the middle of BC’s defense and is very valuable.

Much of the linebacker corps’ strength will rest on individual players taking steps forward, and this is perhaps best personified by rising senior Kam Arnold. He has been a fixture in Hafley’s defense for two seasons now, posting 61 tackles in 2021 and 74 last year, but he has yet to truly break out and dominate. He is one of BC’s more versatile defenders, posting 1.5 sacks in pass rush as well as 2 picks and 2 PDs in coverage, but BC needs more from him. If the linebacker corps is to improve, Arnold needs to take that step as a big-time player in the middle of the Eagle defense. He has the physical tools and now three years of experience in the system, so the ingredients are all there. Prove-it time.

Likely Impact Players:

Bryce Steele is in a similar boat to Arnold. A highly regarded high school recruit, Steele is now entering his junior year and big things are needed from him. He posted 51 tackles, 2 sacks, and a forced fumble, but now with two full years of experience under his belt, it is his time to emerge as a star. Fortunately for BC, he came on strong to end the 2022 season. He especially looked good against Syracuse, where his strip sack capped a great individual performance. He will likely have a bigger role this season, so he needs to take the opportunity and run with it.

Jaylen Blackwell is another rising junior, and though he did not have the same amount of playing time as the three earlier names, he has shown flashes of production in his snaps. Last season he wrangled 21 tackles along with 2.5 sacks. His pass-rushing skills could be useful for the Eagles.

Names to Watch For:

BC has a number of younger underclassmen on the roster waiting for their opportunities, and there are a few with potential to see the field this season. Owen McGowan is a sophomore whose name has been mentioned a few times in preseason practices, and Dave Crouch has a season under his belt as well. Lastly, Sione Hala was recruited as a DB, but he has the talent and size to potentially play in the linebacker position. Hafley has been extremely clear in preseason that the guys demonstrating they are ready to play, and give BC the best chance of winning, will play. If BC’s transfer-laden secondary proves to be lockdown, and the linebackers need help, don’t be surprised to see Hala moving into the box.

Defensive Line:

The Veterans:

The biggest name on this BC defense and possibly the best player on the team is Donovan Ezeiruaku. The best pass-rusher not named Jared Verse in the ACC, Ezeiruaku is a star. He posted a dominant 2022 season with 8.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 60 tackles. He flashed game-breaking ability against the likes of Duke and NC State, and he’s back in 2023 with the goal of double-digit sacks. Now, this season could be a challenge — everyone knows number six is a threat to get after the quarterback. At ACC Media Day, however, Ezeiruaku did not seemed overly worried. If he gets doubled, the likes of Shitta Sillah and Neto Okpala get 1v1s — match-ups to exploit. Schematically, too, co-coordinators Aazar and Duggan will find ways to let Ezeiruaku get after the QB. A leader on the defense, he also put on 10 pounds to his lower half this offseason. Ezeiruaku could be very dangerous this season.

Shitta Sillah enters his senior season finally healthy, and hoping to stay that way. Two years ago, Sillah was playing the best ball of his career — Hafley pointed out the Georgia Tech game — before going down with injury that same contest. After working his way back to play at the start of last season, he suffered a freak shoulder injury and was forced out again, missing the rest of the season. A great athlete, Sillah is finally healthy and hungry for a big season. Ezeiruaku said at ACC Media Day that Sillah is a freak athlete at 6’4”, 250 pounds with length and speed. This time last year, people were talking about him as the best pass-rusher on BC’s roster. If he starts opposite Ezeiruaku, look out.

Cam Horsley flashed solid if unspectacular play at DT last season, and entering his senior year he could be tasked with a big role in the run defense. At 6’3, 315, he has the size to do so. It will be interesting to see the leap he makes if opposing offenses are focused on Ezeiruaku and Sillah.

Likely Impact Players:

Boston College has a ton of younger guys who played rotational roles last year and could now seize a major role for themselves. Chief among them is Neto Okpala; he has been playing at a high level throughout training camp and I would not be surprised to see a major leap from him in his junior year. Two transfers also came in to bolster the line, in the form of George Rooks (Michigan) and Caleb Jones (NC A&T). Rooks, especially, has made an impact. I think he will see big minutes, and I think he has high upside as a former top recruit who couldn’t break through at Michigan.

Names to Watch For:

Kwan Williams, Khris Banks, Ty Clemons, and Edwin Kolenge all saw varying minutes and small roles last year. At least a few of them need to step up in this BC defense. I think the Eagles’ defensive line might be their deepest position group, but someone needs to step up opposite of Ezeiruaku. The only question is who.

This group is deep and talented. Through a week of Fall Camp, nearly every preseason note mentions that the current starting group is producing consistent pressure on the quarterback. Hopefully that is a sign of the line’s strength and not the O-line’s weakness (please tell me it is not the O-line’s weakness), but I have high hopes for these units this season. I think BC’s defense can take a significant step forward.