Sports, Football

10 Burning Questions for the 2019 Eagles

While last year’s iteration of Boston College football was easily the most promising of head coach Steve Addazio’s tenure, this year’s team might be the most intriguing.

Despite plateauing at the seven-win mark for the fifth time in the past six years, the Eagles’ 2019 season was their most exciting in recent memory. BC cracked the AP Poll for the first time since 2008, jumped out to a 7-2 start, hosted College GameDay for the first time in nine years, and rolled out its highest scoring offense since 1993—and that’s not to mention its first-ever appearance in the College Football Playoff rankings.

The Eagles fell back toward mediocrity following their loss to Clemson, ending the season on a three-game losing streak, punctuated by the first FBS-level weather-induced postseason cancellation in college football history. With great talent came several departures, as 11 of BC’s 13 All-ACC selections moved on. The Eagles sent seven players to the NFL Combine, produced their first opening-round pick since 2012, and saw 13 of the program’s best sign with NFL teams this spring, including nine undrafted free agents.

As a result, BC clocks in at 110th of 130 teams in SB Nation’s 2019 returning production rankings. The Eagles are bringing back a mere 38 percent of their 2018 defensive production and have new coordinators on both sides of the ball in Mike Bajakian and Bill Sheridan. BC has the potential to win eight or more games this season, but it could also just as well miss out on a bowl for the first time in four years. There are a lot of questions surrounding the program this summer, but here are the 10 most compelling.

1) Does BC’s defense have enough firepower to keep its offense in games?

Wow, this was a weird question to type. Just a few years back in 2015, the Eagles featured a top-five defense that allowed the fewest yards (254) and the fourth-fewest points (15.3) per game, in addition to ranking third in the country in defensive S&P. 

Since then-defensive coordinator Don Brown departed to powerhouse Michigan, BC has regressed defensively each year. Last season, for as many playmakers as the Eagles had, they were giving up a whole lot of yards—416 per game to be exact. Coming into 2019, BC only has five players on defense that have started a collegiate game. Things could get ugly, and this time around it’s the Eagles’ offense that might have to do the heavy lifting.

2) What’s the Mike Bajakian offense going to look like, and could it be the Eagles’ best yet?

Bajakian was one of the many Tampa Bay Buccaneers coaches left without a job once Dirk Koetter was fired by the organization last December. Bajakian returned to the college ranks after spending four years as the Bucs’ quarterback coach, where he developed the talented (yet inconsistent) Jameis Winston and coached fabled backup Ryan Fitzpatrick. As BC’s new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, he’ll be tasked with refining Anthony Brown, who took a step forward in 2018 but, at times, still struggled with accuracy and decision-making.

During last month’s ACC Kickoff, head coach Steve Addazio assured the media that the Eagles’ offense wasn’t going to stray from its identity with Bajakian at the helm. Expect a pro-style scheme, based around tempo, power running, and play-action. That said, don’t be surprised if Bajakian experiments more with intermediate and deep passing patterns. Last season in Tampa, the Bucs ended the year with the most passing yards and third-most passing touchdowns in the NFL. With an experienced quarterback, a strong running back room, a deep O-Line, a plethora of pass-catching tight ends, and Kobay White on the outside, BC’s offense is set for a big 2019.

3) Are the Eagles set up for another strong start and disappointing finish?

It was looking like the Eagles were a lock for their first eight-plus win season since 2009 when they were gearing up for their College GameDay matchup with then-No. 2 Clemson on Nov. 10. Even if BC slid out of ACC title contention, it’d just have to win one of its final four games to clinch the elusive eight-win season. But a decisive loss to the Tigers, a decision to punt the game away at Florida State, a defensive collapse against Syracuse, and a bowl cancellation left BC hanging, once again, at seven wins.

Addazio and Co. have another brutal home stretch on tap. BC plays four of its last five games on the road, starting with an Oct. 26 matchup at Clemson. Then, the Eagles will travel to Syracuse and host FSU before getting back on a plane to visit both Notre Dame and Pittsburgh. In 2018, those five opponents compiled a 49-18 record, two division titles, one conference championship, two College Football Playoff berths, and one national championship. Talk about a gauntlet. On the other hand, BC’s first five opponents failed to record a winning season last year, and, altogether, its first seven logged a meager 32-54 record. The Eagles will have to make the most of September and October.

4) Come November, will Steve Addazio be on the hot seat again?

If BC loses a non-conference game in September and/or can’t win at least two of its first four ACC games, Addazio will find himself on the hot seat again—perhaps for the final time during his Eagles tenure. At the end of last season, Director of Athletics Martin Jarmond gave Addazio a two-year extension through 2022, but there’s no telling that if things go south this fall Jarmond won’t just pull the trigger.

Part of the reason why the 38-year-old AD extended Addazio was because the Eagles took “important steps in the right direction” last year, namely returning to the AP Poll and hosting GameDay. Another seven-win campaign that comes to a screeching halt in November, or, even worse, a sub-.500 season could spell doom for the longtime BC coach.

5) Will A.J. Dillon stay healthy all season, and, if so, could he win the Heisman Trophy?

Well, there’s no way of knowing whether or not Dillon will stay on the field this year—he missed two games in 2018 and left the final four early with a left ankle injury that he suffered against Temple. But it sure does seem like the junior is in for a “bounce back” season. In a July feature written by Yahoo! Sports’ Pete Thamel, Dillon conceded that, on occasion, he was just going through the motions in 2018—a year in which he expected to compete for the Heisman Trophy, coming off a monstrous ACC Rookie of the Year campaign.

Yet, rather than expecting the success he achieved as a freshman, the 6-foot, 251-pound back is once again on the prowl, preaching the motto “BE PHENOMENAL OR BE FORGOTTEN.” Last year, Dillon’s rushing total dipped to 1,108 yards, but he still became the first player in BC history to start their collegiate career with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Before he went down with his ankle injury, he looked the part of a Heisman contender, rushing for 149 yards in less than a quarter of a work against Holy Cross, and racking up 161 in about one half of play versus Temple. With a new mindset and a strong O-Line, Dillon could finally be primed for the breakout campaign we expected last season. 

That comes with a caveat: If he’s asked to carry the ball 28-plus times on a consistent basis—like he did in four games last year—another injury isn’t out of the question, as would be the case for any running back. Dillon can’t be a human pinball. If he’s going to enter the Heisman Trophy race, he’ll have to be used efficiently, both as a tailback and as a pass catcher.

6) Is Anthony Brown poised to take another step forward in 2019?

Coming into last season, the Eagles’ offense had all the makings of an explosive unit, as evidenced by the back half of 2017. Whether or not they lived up to expectations hinged on Brown, who missed the final three games of the previous year with a torn ACL. But the Cliffwood, N.J., returned better than ever, leading the nation with a 240.2 passer rating and ranking second in the country in yards per pass attempt (13.0) through three weeks of play.

Naturally, Brown’s stats declined as the season progressed, but the second-year starter rounded out the year with 20 passing touchdowns—the most in a regular season by a BC quarterback since Matt Ryan (2007)—and improved in every statistical category, most notably completion percentage, where he jumped from 51.9 to 55.4 percent. He’s losing his go-to tight end and two of his top-three wideouts, but there are still plenty of weapons on offense, particularly at tight end and running back. If Dillon and Co. can open up play-action and Bajakian finds ways to get his QB in rhythm, Brown has a chance to put up great numbers in 2019. Above all else, though, accuracy and turnover rate will dictate his performance.

7) Although young, the secondary looks enticing on paper—how will it pan out?

For the fourth straight year, the Eagles had at least one defensive back selected in the NFL Draft (Will Harris) and an additional three (Lukas Denis, Hamp Cheevers, and Taj-Amir Torres) signed as undrafted free agents. Aside from Brandon Sebastian—who started seven games at corner last season—and Mike Palmer—who saw time at safety in 10—BC’s secondary will be filled with new faces this fall.

It’s looking more and more like Tate Haynes will start opposite of Sebastian. The 6-foot-1 San Diego, Calif., native redshirted the 2017 season as a quarterback, but switched to cornerback during New Era Pinstripe Bowl practices. This past year, he played special teams and appeared in four games at defensive back, making three tackles on the year. 

As for the second safety spot, the competition seems to be pretty wide open. Jahmin Muse earned playing time at the position in four games last season, and Elijah Jones is another player that could make the switch to safety, just like former Eagle Lukas Denis. Standing at 6-foot-3, Jones certainly has the height to make it work. But it looks like Nolan Borgerson and Mehdi El Attrach, two guys Sheridan mentioned during Tuesday’s Media Day, could have the inside track.

All in all, replacing three starters on the backend, not to mention the loss of defensive backs coach Anthony Campanile, is tough to say the least. There’s a chance that BC’s new-look secondary gels quickly, but if the new members’ growing pains are anything like Sebastian’s last year, the Eagles’ defense could be in for a long season.

8) But will it even matter if the defensive line can’t pressure the quarterback?

Sure, the secondary has to hold its own, but it can’t do that without a pass rush. Over the course of the past two years, the defensive end position has been manned by Harold Landry, Zach Allen, and Wyatt Ray—all of whom attracted NFL attention and have a spot on the program’s top-10 career sacks leaderboard. During the forgotten first quarter of the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl, we got a look at a few of BC’s potential defensive end replacements.

Allen was sidelined with an ankle injury, so we saw Brandon Barlow and Marcus Valdez getting time on the edge. Both are competing for starting jobs on the defensive line, but will face competition from Clemson graduate transfer Richard Yeargin, who is returning to football after suffering a neck injury in an automobile accident prior to the 2017 season, and Joey Luchetti. Don’t forget freshman defensive tackle Izaiah Henderson—Addazio is on the record saying the early-enrollee will be playing this year, and he’s sure to do anything he can to find a combo of D-Linemen that create havoc. 

9) Is Aaron Boumerhi the temporary solution to BC’s five-year kicking problem?

In the span of the past five years, BC kickers have converted just 43 of their 64 field goal attempt—or a 67.2 percent clip. The Eagles’ latest place kicker, Colton Lichtenberg, made just 4-of-12 from 40 yards out during his BC career. Considering that the Eagles didn’t recruit a single kicker this offseason, the prospects of any sort of change seemed slim. After all, the only other kickers on the roster were John Tessitore and Danny Longman. Of those two, Tessitore missed four of his 18 extra point attempts, and Longman—a kickoff specialist—was about 10 yards short on a 52-yard field goal attempt in the Jay McGillis Memorial Spring Game.

[infogram id=”f2fc6a55-d31a-44d7-b552-ea35e594a017″ prefix=”jxH” format=”interactive” title=”BC's Kicking Splits (2014-18)”]

Enter, Aaron Boumerhi. After walking on at Temple in 2016, the Philipsburg, Pa., native won the starting job and ended up drilling 31-of-43 field goals (72.1 percent), along with 59-of-62 point after attempts during his three seasons with the team. Distance won’t be a problem for Boumehri. In fact, he kicked field goals of 48 and 52 yards with the Owls. There are some questions surrounding his health, however. Boumehri is coming off a season-ending hip surgery that kept him out the majority of 2018. If he’s back to full strength, BC is getting a big-time upgrade in the kicking department.

10) The Eagles have a bunch of tight ends—which one will fill the shoes of Tommy Sweeney?

Tight end is BC’s deepest position by far, no question. It might have been last year, too. While the Eagles lost Tommy Sweeney—the team’s third-leading receiver in 2018—to the NFL this offseason, it returns a collection of blocking and pass-catching tight ends that Addazio and Bajakian have the luxury of rotating whenever they want, especially since BC typically plays in a two-tight end set. The six to keep your eyes on are: Hunter Long, Jake Burt, Danny Dalton, Korab Idrizi, Ray Marten, and Chris Garrison.

Yes, six. Long and Burt were both named to the John Mackey Award watch list, but a number of these guys could emerge as the Eagles’ primary tight end and fill Sweeney’s shoes. Among the position group last season, Idrizi recorded the second-most receptions (13) and receiving yards (158). And Dalton has been drawing praise in training camp for his soft hands. But Long has been generating the most offseason hype. Time will tell which, if any, steal the spotlight.

Featured Image by Bradley Smart / Heights Editor

Photos by Keith Carroll, Celine Lim, and Taylor Perison / Heights Senior Staff, Heights Editor, and For The Heights 

August 7, 2019