'Nole Your Enemy- The Shrinking Boston College Defense

We continue our " 'Nole Your Enemy" Series with Boston College.  We started with South Florida (OffenseDefense) and continued with BYU's Offense and Defense.  Yesterday we previewed BC's Offense.  Today we'll look at their defense, and particularly how they will defend the Seminole Offense

Boston College's defense was excellent last year, not just in the ACC, but on a national level.  They were easily one of the top 5 defenses in the country, and one of the best in the latter part of this decade.  BC was loaded with experienced, smart, very talented players and they were very well coached.  Let's take a look at where they ranked against other ACC teams:  

Acc_opponent_adjusted_defensive_efficiency__ade_-_all_games_medium

Obviously, the lower the number, the better.  Florida had the Nation's best defense, and they posted a -0.567.  BC had a -0.547, which by this measure, placed them as the 2nd best defensive unit in the nation.

So BC's defense was really, really good.  But why was Boston College so good on defense?  How did they do it?  And more importantly, can they do it again this year against the 'Noles?  Let's find out...

Boston College stopped the run and the pass...

Acc_yards_per_carry_allowed__without_sacks__medium_medium_medium

As you can see, BC had the conference's best defense and the best run defense.  But they also led the nation in interceptions with 26!  

 

Boston College's defense was huge.  Literally.

Most elite defenses had a front 7 (4 defensive linemen and three linebackers, or three defensive linemen and four linebackers) weighing in at over 1830lbs last year.  BC was one of only two teams to come in at over 1900lbs!  (BC was 1902lbs, 'Bama was 1920).  Basically, dominated 1st and 2nd down with their huge defensive line and linebacking corps, which allowed their secondary to focus almost solely on the pass.  The created 2nd and 8+ and 3rd and 5+ situations more consistent than almost anybody else, and of course, interceptions come in those situations because the defense knows what the offense will do (pass).  If you're interested in reading 5,000 words on why defensive size matters, Click Here.  

And when BC got teams into those highly favorable (for the defense) situations, Defensive Coordinator Frank Spaziani went to work.  This is an excellent article explaining how: http://clempsonfootball.blogspot.com/2009/07/bc-spazianis-3-5-3-defense.html  And they produced excellent results (see above, or watch any game).  

But BC's defense wasn't only huge and physically mature, they were very talented...  We're talking about multiple elite NFL prospects at the most important positions.  Let's go to the tape!

B.J. Raji- Defensive Tackle

B.J. Raji Inside Look (via gridironvids)

DT BJ Raji Highlights Boston College 2008 (via DraftParty)

Raji is one of the most impressive defensive tackle prospects to come out of college in a while.  At 335lbs+ and cat quick, he destroyed everyone in his path.  Raji made FSU's All-American Guard Rodney Hudson look terrible, to say nothing of what he did to The 'Nole's highly regarded (by some, not by us) Center Ryan McMahon.  He was selected 9th overall in the NFL draft.  Yes, BC had a top 10 pick playing defensive tackle.  If Raji had played in the 2007 season (missed a lot because of Academics and other stuff), he might have been a top 5 overall selection.  But that's not the only guy Boston College had in the middle...

Ron Brace- Nose Guard

DT Ron Brace Highlights BC vs Vandy 2008 (via DraftParty)

Brace was bigger and slower, but he was a load at 340lbs.  You can see the problems he caused from his video.  He was selected in the 2nd round of the NFL draft, #40 overall, by the New England Patriots- who have a great track record drafting defensive linemen (if you had any doubts as to his skill level, that should help to assuage them).

So Boston College had two excellent NFL prospects, who were seniors, playing defensive tackle, weighing at least a combined 670lbs (and possibly more).  How rare is that?  It hasn't happened in over half a decade:

Teams with 2 defensive tackles taken in 1st and 2nd round (or 2 1st rounders) of same draft:

2001 Georgia Richard Seymour (1st) and Marcus Stroud (1st)
2001 Texas Casey Hampton (1st) and Shaun Rogers (2nd)
2002 Tennessee John Henderson (1st) and Albert Haynesworth (1st)
2003 Penn State Jimmy Kennedy (1st) and Tony Adams (2nd)

So I think we can all agree that this is a pretty rare pairing.  What did this pairing do for BC schematically?

It allowed them to shrink the field.  College offensive lines couldn't handle the interior of BC's defensive line.  As you can see on the videos, these two not only effectively held their ground, but they literally drove their offensive counterpart several yards into the backfield.  Running against the middle of BC's defense was not an option, so teams were forced to run wider.  Boston College wasn't dumb, however, and they knew teams would try to run wide on them.  What did they do to compensate?  Align wider, of course, with their linebackers and ends.  BC knew they some of their players weren't that fast (not all- some were very fast), but they were very strong and big.  By aligning them wider, they were able to minimize any disadvantage their lack of speed posed.  Their defensive ends and linebackers were strong enough to fight through blocks to get back to and help out with the interior runs.  So it worked very well.

BC's DT duo was also devastatingly effective because of their duplicity.  Against one good defensive tackle, it's fairly common practice to handle him by double-teaming.  But that didn't work against BC because you can't effectively double team two defensive tackles (4 guys blocking two means that there are only 6 blockers left to block the other 9 defenders- assuming the QB is not a blocker).  And if teams did not try to double both, the non-double teamed defensive tackle would simply blow the play up in the backfield.  

And despite their size, they were also very good against the pass.  Because of their sheer power, Raji and Brace pushed the opposing pass protectors back into the quarterback.  There was no pocket against BC.  It simply did not exist.  BC's ends weren't great, but they looked pretty good because the opposing quarterback could not step up. "The worse place for a pass rusher is behind the quarterback"_ Bill Belicheck.  BC's guys were never behind the quarterback.  It was impossible to over-run the play because the QB had to backpedal so far.  We saw great examples of this last year against Notre Dame and of course, the FSU game.  BC's defensive tackles allowed BC to defend only half the field, because the QB would inevitably leave the non-existent pocket and scramble to one side of the field or another.  BC would simply defend that side of the field.  And it wasn't if the escape routes were sharp or direct- no, they were long and loopy because of the pressure asserted up the middle.  That long, loopy pocket escape allowed BC's defense time to re-position.  If the QB could make a throw across his body, to the opposite side of the field while on the run, BC would let him have it.  They knew that a play like that more often ends in disaster for the offense than a bust by the defense.  

Okay,s o you get the point that BC had NFL players at the two most important defensive positions, but a lot of people will tell you that those two weren't even BC's best defensive player.  Linebacker Mark Herzlich actually won the ACC's defensive player of the year award.  Video?  Absolutely:

Mark Herzlich vs. Virginia Tech (via AloDraft)

DraftParty: LB Mark Herzlich Highlights Boston College vs Vanderbilt 2008 (via DraftParty)

Mark Herzlich vs. Wake Forest (via AloDraft)

Herzlich was 6'4" 245lbs and he could move.  He played like he had stolen Barry Bonds' roids and taken them all at once, and he was arguably the best linebacker in the country, though he didn't get as much praise as the USC or Florida guys.  His draft evaluation was really, really high, easily a top 20 pick.  Herzlich being a stand up guy, however, decided to come back and play out his senior season as defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani took over the head coaching position.  Tragically, he came down with Ewing's Sarcoma (Cancer) this off-season.  He can't play football this year and I won't speculate on his ability to ever play again.  The important thing for Mark is that he gets better.  Currently undergoing Chemo, he's said to be in good spirits.  

I hate to be cold about this, but losing Herzlich is absolutely huge for Boston College.  Think about this, Boston College basically lost three elite NFL prospects off its defense in a single season.  No team lost more on the defensive side (except arguably USC).  

BC plays a read and react defense under defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani (now the head coach), which means they rarely blitz.  Spaziani is highly thought of as a defensive coordinator and is very detail oriented.  He has always done a nice job of adapting his scheme to his personnel.    And this year he has quite the task on his hands with the loss of his 3 best players (by far).  BC returns only 5 starters on defense, and none of those 5 are projected NFL selections.  To say that the talent has dropped off would be a huge understatement.  It's highly doubtful that BC's defense will come close to what it did last season.  Let's see what they bring back...

 

Defensive Line & Linebackers (The "Front 7")

Gone are the big boys we discussed above.  BC doesn't have the ability to replace them.  The best of this group is tackle Damik Scafe (6-3, 293, Jr.).  He played a bit last year and will probably play in the NFL eventually, though he's an obvious dropoff from last year.  The other tackle is tackle Kaleb Ramsey (6-3, 256, Soph.)  Young and obviously not very strong, he's a major liability and most teams will be able to run on him.  

While BC has major questions at tackle, they are considerable better off at defensive end.  Austin Giles (6-3, 283, Sr.) will battle Alex Albright 6'2" 250 could also get the nod.  At the other end, Jim Ramella (6-4, 243, Sr.) is a very solid player.  These guys are good, but not great, and won't come close to having the impact that the two interior guys had last year.  In fact, they could regress as teams focus on them and not the interior guys.  

At linebacker, the Eagles are a mess.  They lost Herzlich and he obviously isn't replacable.  They also lost Robert Francois (6'2" 255), and  Middle Linebacker Mike McLaughlin (6'0" 252) will try to return from tearing his Achilles back in March, but even if he does come back, he'll be quite rusty.  Trying to replace Herzlich is sophomore  Dominick LeGrande 6'2" 200 (yes, 200).  He's not ready, but has to play anyways because of Herzlich's absence.  LeGrande played safety last year.  Sophomore  Will Thompson (6'1" 235) will replace McLaughlin if he can't go.  He has impressed people but is not as good as the guy he will be asked to replace.  At the other position will be one of two redshirt freshmen in 6'3" 217lb Nick Clancy or 6'3" 222lb Alexander Disanzo.  

These guys are much smaller, much less experienced, much less talented, and much younger.  There's a huge dropoff for BC's defensive line and linebackers.

So BC's front-7 did weigh 1902lbs.  This year, they will weigh in at 1711bs.  That's a huge dropoff of 191lbs!  No team in the country that I could find had this significant a dropoff, and nobody else was even close.  That's to say nothing of the talent they lost (regardless of size), which they can't replace this season.  

So 1711lbs combined in their front 7.  Why does this matter?  FSU's run game destroys small front 7's.

There are two ways to stop FSU's running game and not get burned by the bubble screen (a pass FSU throws exceptionally well)  Essentially, the bubble screen is a tool to make sure that the offense plays 7 in the box and not 8.  If the defense cheats and brings extra men against the run, we throw the bubble to keep them honest. : 

  1. The first is to have a huge, disciplined front 7, that is difficult to cut block.  One that takes good angles and doesn't allow cutbacks.  This allows teams to play straight upon the receivers, also maintaining deep coverage.  Or...
  2. Play 8 in the box and play zero coverage-press man against each receiver.  Virginia Tech did this and they were eventually burned deep.  This requires excellent athletes in the secondary,

As we'll see in a second, BC does not have the option to play number two.  They have to hope their front-7 can stop the run.  What did other front 7's do against FSU's run game?

Wake 1838lbs, 27 rushes for 103 yards.  Wake was very big.They were able to play the bubble straight up, which worked very well.  They also had 4 seniors on defense drafted in the first 4 rounds.

Florida 1835lbs, 29 rushes for 137  Big and supremely talented, our rushing success came primarily in garbage time.

Miami 1785lbs, 54 rushes, 281 yards.  There is a pretty big drop off from UF to Miami (55lbs).  Remember here that our rushing success came primarily on reverses and Ponder running, most of which was a result of Miami's idiotic plan to defense our attack.  We bubbled them to death when they went 8 or 9 in the box.

Georgia Tech 1772lbs (I think they were lighter because of major injuries, correct?).  31 rushes, 228 yards.  Remember that GTech was missing 2 key linebackers and a safety.  Still, this is a big drop in weight from the 3 schools over 1835lbs.

Virginia Tech 1766lbs, 34 rushes, 123 yards.  Poor numbers.  Explanation?  Yes.  VT played 8 in the box and manned up on the wide receivers.  If you're puzzled, remember what happened:  the only thing open was the deep ball.  They saturated the running lanes and pressed FSU's wideouts. Eventually, FSU burned them deep.

Clemson 1760lbs, 34 rushes, 281 yards  Light front 7?  Check.  Depending solely on speed to stop the run?  Check.  Cutbacks?  Check.

NC State 1757lbs, 42 rushes, 162 yards  These numbers aren't amazing, but much of this game was us trying to control the clock while battling holding penalties.  They also include lost sack yardage (which isn't a run play).  Light front 7?  Check.  Depending solely on speed to stop the run?  Check.  Cutbacks?  Check.

Maryland 1755lbs, 41 rushes, 172 yards  Maryland struggled all game in choosing to defend the bubble or the run.

Colorado 1755lbs, 45 rushes, 259 yards  The smallest front we played AND they decided to stop the bubble.  Running wild was the obvious result.

BC is 44lbs lighter than any front-7 FSU played last season.  From the Biggest to the Smallest.Every offensive linemen is back for FSU, and three are All-America candidates (even if 'Nole fans know their center is overrated).  The 'Nole line is extremely quick and very intelligent.  They will not struggle to block BC's tiny front -7.  FSU is great against small quick teams because their linemen are athletes, not maulers.  They are excellent blockers on the 2nd level (where the linebackers are). 

Suffice to say, BC will not be able to widen everyone out this year like they did last season.  I'm not trying to be mean here, but these guys went from the best front-7 FSU played, to one of the worst.  

 

Secondary

Remember all those interceptions?  Kiss them goodbye.  BC's secondary was allowed to play pass first, second, and last.  Now?  They'll have to use one of the secondary members (a safety) in run support.  The burden on the secondary should be significantly increased.  Were those defensive backs really that good?  Or were they the beneficiaries of a great front-7 that put opposing offenses in tough situations?  I think it's the latter.  None of the BC secondary guys are likely all-conference candidates or NFL players (none are projected to go in the 2010 or 2011 draft).  Let's have a look:

At Safety, BC should be okay with Free Safety Wes Davis and Strong Safety Marcellus Bowman.  Davis is a 6'2" 215 Junior who produced 60 tackles, 3 tfl, 2 INT, 6 pass breakups last year.  He's a decent player in coverage and in run suppot, but as with most of these guys, I expect him to get exposed because he now has to play run and pass (can't play 25 yards off the ball).  Davis will be hung out to dry all by himself because Bowman, a 6'2" 217lb Senior will be called upon to help stop the run.  Again, the loss of the great front-7 guys (both expected and unexpected) is going to put tremendous pressure on this secondary.  

At corner, BC has similar problems.  They return the experienced Roderick Rollins, a 6-0, 188-pound senior.  Rollins has had the benefit of a lot of help from his safeties in his career and that help won't be there this year.  He's decently physical, but can he turn and run after the initial bump coverage?  We shall see.  At the other corner spot is rising sophomore Donnie Fletcher (6'1" 188lbs).  Fletcher is another big corner.  They also have the experienced Deleon Gause 5'11" 174lb, a Junior who has good physical skills, but is inconsistent.  

BC's secondary plays extremely physical, which is great when they have the help of safeties who aren't pre-occupied with stopping the run.  But without safety help, if the corners can't run and run, they will be burned for long TD's.  Wes Davis will have to prove that he can cover the deep middle instead of a deep half (now that Bowman will play down in the box).  

 

So, some Final Thoughts?  BC's defense was the ACC's best and easily top 5 nationally.  They beat FSU up last year.  FSU had the youngest offensive line in the country and were destroyed by an ultra-talented and experienced set of defensive linemen and linebackers.  But BC lost more talent in one off-season to graduation, injuries, and tragic diseases, than they've had come through their program in the previous decade.  No team can simply replace what BC lost, but some could come close.  BC isn't one of those programs.  I feel bad for these guys because their off-season was truly very unlucky.  I expect BC's defense to go from the tops in the conference to the bottom 3rd.  There's simply not much depth and little talent.  Neither team should be more distracted than the other for this game, as they both have good opponents before and after.  I have full confidence that Frank Spaziani will come up with good game plan after good game plan, but his ability to get creative will be severely hampered because his defense will face far fewer obvious passing situations.  He's also never been a blitz guy, and he'll definitely need to blitz FSU to get pressure, because FSU's offensive line can handle BC's 3 or 4 man rush.  When he blitzes, can their secondary handle the single coverage responsibilities against FSU's wideouts?  I doubt it.  I expect FSU to run the ball very well on BC, force BC to make adjustments that they really don't want to do, and then FSU will exploit them down the field.  This isn't a slam dunk game for FSU by any means, and I'd be shocked to see FSU as a double digit favorite, but researching this piece made me realize just how good BC's defense was last season, and just how much talent they lost.

 

For more on BC, see:  BC Interruption or Eagle in Atlanta

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