A pair of defensive ends that combined for 15.5 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss. Three starting defensive backs—two who recorded seven interceptions in one season, and a third that parlayed an impressive Combine performance into being drafted in the third round of the NFL Draft. Two graduate linebackers that played in a total of 101 games for Boston College football.
Losing just one of those three groups of players to the NFL is tough for a defensive unit. Losing all three, like the Eagles did following the 2018 season, means a massive overhaul for a BC defense that also switched coordinators ahead of 2019. Jim Reid, who spent the last three seasons calling the defensive shots, remains on the staff and will coach the defensive ends. He was replaced by Bill Sheridan, who arrived on staff in the spring of 2018 after 13 consecutive seasons coaching in the NFL.
At BC’s annual Media Day on Tuesday, despite the challenges posed by the loss of seven starters, Sheridan appeared mostly confident that returning veterans and young talent would be able to aptly fill the void.
That transition starts on the defensive line, where Tanner Karafa is the only meaningful returning contributor from 2018. When asked about who will replace Zach Allen and Wyatt Ray, the Eagles’ dynamic edge rushing duo from last season, Sheridan mentioned redshirt freshman Joey Luchetti, Clemson graduate transfer Richard Yeargin, Marcus Valdez, and Brandon Barlow as the likely two-deep for the opener against Virginia Tech.
In what became one of the themes of the press conference, Sheridan then pivoted to praising some of the new talent across the defensive line.
“We do have young guys that have come in, some freshmen, they’re four days into camp, but a couple guys that are easy to get excited about based on what they’ve done the first four days,” he said.
He declined to mention specific names, though Izaiah Henderson, who enrolled in January and drew praise from BC head coach Steve Addazio for his play in the spring, is one candidate to contribute instantly.
Familiar Names in the Secondary
It’s not often that a sophomore is looked upon as a leader of a position group, but that’s the situation that Brandon Sebastian finds himself in after Hamp Cheevers declared early for the NFL draft, and Lukas Denis, Taj-Amir Torres, and Will Harris graduated. It’s a tall task for someone who has played just one season to all of a sudden be the elder statesman for the Eagles defensive backs, but Sheridan made a point to note that there’s more than one way for Sebastian to lead.
“I told him, you don’t have to do anything else other than your normal personality,” Sheridan said. “Your greatest contribution will be your performance, and if you do, the young guys will see how you practice, how you perform on Saturdays, how those two things tie in together, and that’s the leadership we need from you.”
It must be noted that, though Sebastian is the lone returning starter in the secondary, he’s certainly not the only familiar name competing for a starting spot at defensive back. In addition to Mike Palmer, who played in 10 games last season due to a variety of injuries to BC’s normal starters, Nolan Borgerson and Mehdi El Attrach are also in the running for first-team gigs, according to Sheridan.
Opposite from Sebastian, however, it appears Tate Haynes, another 6-foot-1 redshirt sophomore, has locked down the role as the Eagles’ other starting cornerback. Both Sheridan and Addazio mentioned that he’s been running with the “ones” all training camp.
Many questions still surround the secondary and defensive line, but the Eagles certainly appear to be set at linebacker. Max Richardson and John Lamot, a pair of redshirt juniors who both played in all 12 games for BC last season, are locked in as starters come opening day. It’s Isaiah McDuffie, however, the Eagles’ strongside linebacker, who might be the best of the three.
A versatile athlete who did a bit of everything for BC in 2018, the Buffalo, N.Y., native finished second on the team with 85 tackles, while chipping in with 3.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. Now a junior, the expectations are sky high for McDuffie, and Sheridan has certainly noticed his talent.
“He’s definitely one of our best defensive players,” the Eagles’ defensive coordinator noted.
Behind them, a number of younger players will be clamoring for time, including Vinny DePalma, a redshirt freshman who was the top-ranked inside linebacker in the state of New Jersey in 2018, and Shitta Sillah, the No. 1 outside linebacker in the Garden State in the class of 2019.
The Upside and Downside of Youth
When asked about the bright spots of camp thus far, Sheridan took care to mention the number of freshmen that BC brought in during the last recruiting period.
“We have a whole boatload of young defensive linemen and a couple of true freshman defensive back corners in particular, and we’re excited,” he said. “We’re like, yes, we did a good job. These are the guys we should be bringing in here. Again, whether they contribute this year or a year from now, they’re good recruits.”
Of course, they’re still freshmen, and mistakes have to be expected for players who are learning about the college game for the first time. For some, the sheer number of new plays has to be overwhelming, and Sheridan was honest about that.
“You get a little paralyzed when the volume of the installation starts mounting up on you, and it’s already—we’re four days into it, and there’s freshmen out there right now that are swimming,” he mentioned.
Later, when asked about what the Eagles could improve upon after four days of camp, BC’s new defensive coordinator once again noted the bevy of new recruits.
“They’re moderately dysfunctional right now,” the Detroit, Mich., native stated. “They couldn’t line up and play. If we had to play, we could line up and play one or two calls because that’s how they’re executing. It’s just swirling around in their skulls right now.”
Despite that, it doesn’t seem like Sheridan is too concerned with the Eagles’ new young blood.
“Two weeks from now, they’ll be light years better than they are right now.”
Featured Image Courtesy of BC Athletics