It’s no secret that Boston College football’s defense struggled last year. However you slice it, the numbers were bad. The defense’s challenges were especially pronounced when it came to stopping the run and putting pressure on the quarterback.
So what changed from a solid 2018 season when BC’s defense ranked 35th nationally in yards allowed per play? The front seven was stalwart against the run, allowing 3.8 yards per rush, and got after the quarterback at an almost three-sack-per-game clip.
In addition to some major losses on the defensive line in 2019, BC suffered hits to its linebacking corps. Leading tackler Connor Strachan graduated, and though the Eagles returned two other starters in Max Richardson and Isaiah McDuffie, McDuffie missed most of the season with an injury sustained in spring practice.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of McDuffie’s loss for the Eagles last season, and simultaneously how much his return could mean for BC this year.
“When you’re injured, you don’t get to rest—it’s all mental,” McDuffie said in a media conference this summer. “So when you get back, you’re ready to play.”
After playing sparingly as a freshman, McDuffie broke out as a sophomore, notching 85 tackles—5.5 for loss—and 3.5 sacks. He was a constant spark for the Eagles’ defense, flying around the field and continuously coming up with big plays when BC needed it most.
With the Eagles holding a 27-14 lead against Miami mid-way through the fourth quarter in 2018, McDuffie came flying around the edge and stripped the ball away from an unsuspecting Malik Rosier.
McDuffie came up huge again in another big spot just two weeks later, flying off the edge again to sack Trevor Lawrence and snuffing out the Tigerrs’ hopes of notching another score before halftime.
With both McDuffie and Max Richardson returning, the linebacking corps seemed poised to be an area of strength for the Eagles last season, a bright spot BC particularly needed given the losses across the rest of the defense.
The spring game is normally meant to be a safe affair, primarily designed to bring excitement for the following season. It was anything but that for McDuffie, who sustained a lower body injury in the game that cost him the first eight games of the 2019 season.
Despite his long stay on the sidelines, McDuffie did not miss a beat when he returned to the field, notching 30 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks across the Eagles’ last four games.
“You have to just grind out mentally and know when you get back you gotta know what you’re doing,” McDuffie said in a recent press conference. “Cause you’re not physically able to do it, so mentally, just watch other people do it and then just put yourself in that position, so when you get back, you can execute.”
If McDuffie can continue to perform at the level he did in 2018 and the end of 2019, the Eagles will be poised to improve on defense.
McDuffie will have plenty of help from the rest of the linebacker room to make that improvement a reality. Max Richardson announced soon after Hafley’s hiring that he would forego the NFL draft and return to the Heights for his final year of eligibility.
“That’s big,” said McDuffie about Richardson deciding to return. “That’s my brother right there, so it’s always a pleasure and always fun playing with him.”
McDuffie and Richardson’s partnership and experience will be especially critical as the team adjusts to a new scheme. While numerous questions still loom over the Eagles’ season, the middle of the defense is in good hands.
Featured Image by Michael Conroy / AP Photo