It’s the beginning of a new era for the Boston College Eagles football program. New head coach Jeff Hafley was hired to replace Steve Addazio, who led Boston College to bowl games in five of his seven years on the sidelines but never won more than seven games in a single season.
Hafley, a first-time head coach with experience at the highest levels of college football as well as the NFL, is expected to inject new life into a program mired in mediocrity during the last decade. And with room to climb in the ACC, given its own mediocre reputation outside of perennial national championship contender Clemson, Hafley’s skills recruiting and running a defense could pay quick dividends.
What do we expect to see from the new coach, and what do we hope to learn before the Hafley leads the Eagles onto the field to face Syracuse in September? Here we explore five storylines to watch this spring.
5 Storylines to Watch During Boston College’s Spring Practice
1. Getting to know the new coaching staff
Jeff Hafley spent just one season as Ohio State's co-defensive coordinator, but it was a spectacular one. Among traditional measures, the Buckeyes led the nation in total defense (259.7 yards allowed per game) and yards allowed per play (4.13). Nobody recorded more sacks (54.0) or tackles for loss (124.0) as a unit. In more advanced statistics, Ohio State led the Big Ten and ranked third nationally in points allowed per play (0.218), points allowed per possession (1.068), and Expected Points Added defensively (-0.26 per play). Oh, and the Buckeyes cruised to an undefeated regular season, won the Big Ten title, and earned a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Prior to Hafley’s stint in Columbus, the 40-year old spent seven years as a defensive backs coach in the NFL with the 49ers (2016-18), Browns (2014-15) and Buccaneers (2012-13). He also spent time at the FBS level at both Rutgers (2011) and Pitt (2006-10).
Hafley relied on connections made earlier in his career when filling out his coaching staff — especially the coordinator roles. New offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. was out of coaching during the 2019 season but spent the previous seven years of his career in the NFL, having worked with some very high-profile quarterbacks including Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning. Cignetti also has extensive experience as an offensive coordinator at the FBS level, having called plays at Fresno State (2002-05), North Carolina (2006), Cal (2008), Pitt (2009-10), and Rutgers (2011). We can expect the BC offense to reflect Cignetti’s pro background.
BC hired Tem Lukabu as defensive coordinator. And like Cignetti, Lukabu has bounced between the professional and collegiate ranks for most of his career. Unlike Cignetti, Lukabu has yet to hold a play-calling position. He spent the last season coaching linebackers for the Bengals, and he had the same role at Mississippi State in 2018. Hafley, Lukabu, and Cignetti were all part of Greg Schiano’s staff at Rutgers in 2011.
2. Quarterback situation
Anthony Brown started 28 games under Addazio from 2017-19 but entered the transfer portal shortly after suffering a season-ending knee injury last season. Brown’s injury opened the door for Dennis Grosel, who started the last six games. Grosel completed 48.4 percent of his passes for 983 yards and nine touchdowns with three interceptions. The rising junior added 209 rushing yards and two scores on the ground.
Given his experience in the role, Grosel enters the spring with the inside track to start in 2020. However, the former walk-on is far from assured to take the first snaps against Syracuse. Phil Jurkovec, who transferred to Boston College from Notre Dame and is already on campus, would be the favorite to win the job if his waiver for immediate eligibility is approved. Jurkovec was a blue-chip high school recruit who appeared in eight games across the last two seasons for the Fighting Irish. Last year, Jurkovec completed 12-of-16 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 130 yards. Matt Valecce, who has appeared in five games, and 2019 signee Sam Johnson III, would also be in the mix.
3. Life after AJ Dillon
Dillon opted to leave Boston College following a recording-setting three-year career in which he ran for 4,382 yards and 38 touchdowns, was named to first-team All-ACC each season, and earned third-team All-American honors from the Associated Press. Dillon sat out the Birmingham Bowl to prepare for the NFL draft, and BC was shut out offensively in the 38-6 loss to Cincinnati — not a great start to life after Dillon for the Eagles.
However, there is hope David Bailey can step into Dillon’s shoes to become one of the top running backs in the ACC in 2020. First of all, at 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, Bailey is built like a Dillon clone. Bailey has also had success in a limited role, having gained 844 rushing yards and scoring seven touchdowns as a sophomore, while averaging 5.7 yards per carry (0.4 yards better than Dillon).
Travis Levy, who has flashed playmaking ability as a running back, receiver and return man, could be in line for a bigger role as a senior in 2020. Pat Garwo III, Javian Dayne, and incoming freshman Andre Hines should also compete for carries behind Bailey. And — especially if Jurkovic is eligible in 2020 — we will likely see more from receivers Kobay White and Zay Flowers, and continued production from talented tight end Hunter Long.
4. A solid foundation on the offensive line
One reason to expect Boston College to succeed offensively in 2020 is its offensive line. Though graduated All-ACC guard John Phillips will be missed, the Eagles return three full-time starters from last year’s unit, and all five projected starters have made 10 or more starts during their college careers.
Right tackle Ben Petrula leads the pack with 36 career starts and was a second-team All-ACC performer last season. Left guard Zion Johnson also earned a spot on the All-ACC second team despite starting only six games. Johnson was named as the conference’s Offensive Lineman of the Week three times in 2019 — his first at BC after transferring from Davidson. Center Alec Lindstrom earned honorable mention, and left tackle Tyler Vrabel emerged as a starter as a redshirt freshman.
Elijah Johnson, who has appeared in 15 games and made 10 career starts, has the inside track for the fifth spot in the starting lineup. However, early enrollee Kevin Payne and top recruit Ozzy Trapilo, who will join the squad this summer, could force themselves into the conversation. According to the 247Sports Composite, Trapilo earned the sixth-highest grade (.9242) of any BC signee during the internet era and is the highest-rated recruit to join the Eagles since 2005. Pyne (.9022) ranks as the 17th-best recruit to sign with Boston College during the same period, and outside Trapilo is the highest-rated high school prospect to sign with the Eagles since 2011.
5. Improvement on defense
Before Jeff Hafley arrived in Columbus, Ohio State allowed 403.4 total yards per game and 5.77 yards per play in 2018, which ranked No. 71 and No. 72 in FBS, respectively. It would be unwise to give Hafley total credit for the quick turnaround, and it’s worth noting the Buckeyes fielded one of the most talented units in the country in 2019. Nevertheless, there is hope Boston College will improve under his direction. Given the Eagles surrendered 478.7 yards per contest and 6.33 yards per snap — which ranked No. 125 and No. 110 overall, respectively, last year — improvement is likely.
Increasing pressure would help. The good news is that Boston College is expected to lose only 3.0 sacks from last season’s total due to graduations. The bad news? The Eagles recorded only 19.0 sacks last season, which ranked No. 106 overall and 13th in the ACC. BC ranked No. 118 overall and last in the conference with a 4.3 percent sack rate.
On that note, Hafley inherits plenty of experience on the defensive side of the ball. The Eagles are expected to lose only three of their top 9 tacklers from last season, and 20 of the 24 players who recorded 10 or more tackles in 2019 are expected to return. Most notably, linebacker Max Richardson is back for his senior season after tallying 108 total tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, all of which led the team.
(Top photo courtesy of bceagles.com)