A little over 20 years ago, a fresh-faced Jeff Hafley was preparing for his senior year of football at Siena College. The young wide receiver had earned four varsity letters for the Saints under three different head coaches, including Jay Bateman, who led the Saints during Hafley’s senior year.
Now, two decades later, Hafley and Bateman will reunite. But this time, they’ll be on opposite sides of the field as Boston College football (2-0, 1-0 Atlantic Coast) takes on No. 12 North Carolina. Hafley said he’s kept in touch with his former coach over the years, but this Saturday will be the pair’s first meeting of their respective careers.
Bateman, one of the Tar Heels’ defensive coordinators, works under the heralded head coach Mack Brown. Hafley said during Tuesday’s virtual media availability that the two have taught him innumerable lessons as a coach.
“[Brown has] got to be one of the best college coaches of all time, and the cool part is he’s such a good ambassador for football,” Hafley said. “Just seeing what he’s brought to college football and how much he cares about the game and loves the game and wants to protect the game—I just have so much respect for him.”
Not only do the Tar Heels have coaching weapons working in their favor, but Hafley said they’ve also got one of the most talented squads—on both sides of the ball—in the country.
UNC’s front man, quarterback Sam Howell, is an early Heisman contender after just one game. In the Tar Heels’ season opener, Howell threw for 295 yards on 25-for-34 passing, good for a 73.5 percent completion rate.
“He’s a good quarterback, you know, he’s very accurate in the pocket and he’s got good vision downfield—so we’ve got to really try and be disciplined in our coverage and secondary,” Eagles’ defensive lineman Brandon Barlow said during Tuesday’s press conference. “As a D-line, we’ve got to get after him this week—make sure we get pressure on him and affect the game in that manner.”
Howell ran for just 12 yards in the opener, but the Tar Heels’ deep roster in the backfield means that he can focus on the pass game, while his running backs focus on the ground game.
“They’ve got two really good backs in [number] eight and [number] 25,” Hafley said about UNC’s Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, respectively. “Very patient, very good runners—25’s a big kid. Their wide receivers can make plays down the field. … They might be some of the most talented guys in the ACC.”
To open the season, BC has faced two wildly different opponents in Duke and Texas State, each of which came in a different setting for the Eagles. Now, in their third week, the Eagles face a UNC team that relies more heavily on the pass game than weeks past, according to Hafley.
In BC’s season opener, the Eagles faced Duke in Durham in the middle of the day. The very next week, they took on Texas State at home under the lights. Now, in BC’s first ranked matchup of the year, the Eagles will once again play on familiar turf, but kickoff is set for the late afternoon.
All the week-to-week changes, Hafley said, make it hard for the team to settle into a routine. As a result, he said, the team’s consistency has taken a hit.
“If you look back to the Duke game, there were times we looked really good, and then there were times we made mistakes,” Hafley said. “And the same thing in the Texas State game. There were times we looked really good, and there were times where we just had lapses and we weren’t consistent. …. Right now, we can’t afford to have those lapses and to make those mistakes. If we’re going to win football games, especially against a top-10 opponent like we’re going to play, we need to be more consistent.”
The Eagles entered last week’s matchup with Texas State as the favorites, only to escape narrowly on a last-second field goal. This week, BC is the underdog against an AP Top-25 team with just one game under its belt. UNC had an extra week of rest and preparation after its season-opening beatdown of Syracuse thanks to the cancellation of its matchup with Charlotte due to COVID-19 concerns.
“We just need to focus on ourselves and get better,” Hafley said. “And that’s how we have to approach it. But our players understand what’s ahead, and so does our staff. But as a head coach, I need to focus on our football team right now.”
Featured Image by Barry Chin Courtesy of The Boston Globe