Sports, Football, Featured Story

Facing the Top Team in College Football, Hafley Reflects on History

On a brisk November night in 2008, an unusual figure donned the head coach headset for Clemson football’s matchup with Boston College. A 38-year-old Dabo Swinney entered just his second game as the Tigers’ head coach after the resignation of Tommy Bowden, who had vacated the position two weeks prior. What ensued was a nose-to-the-grindstone battle between two emerging ACC teams: BC, who at the time sat at 5-2, and a faltering 3-4 Clemson.

The Tigers were lost, searching for a way out of the holding pattern of middle-of-the-road seasons, and with Bowden’s departure, they found their guide. Swinney emerged from the wreckage and earned his first win as a head coach in a 27-21 victory over BC. 

Cue the dumping of Gatorade over Swinney’s head. 

What Swinney has accomplished since his first win in 2008 has been nothing short of Hall of Fame worthy. After eking out a winning season that year at 7-6, Swinney has gone on to coach the Tigers to two National Championships—one in 2016 and another in 2018, the latter which completed a coveted 15-0 season. And sitting atop the AP Rankings for yet another week this week, Clemson looks like it won’t slow down. 

But in his first year as the head of a still-emerging BC program, head coach Jeff Hafley looks to have something to say about the Tigers’ No. 1 ranking. 

The Halloween matchup will take place exactly one decade and a day since BC last won the O’Rourke-McFadden Trophy, given annually to the winner of the BC-Clemson game. For the last 10 years, it has sat safely in Swinney’s team’s possession. Since Swinney’s first win, it’s been a nearly unbroken tradition for Clemson to clobber BC year after year after year

“I have a ton of respect for [Swinney] and the way he treated me this offseason,” Hafley said in his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “I just love the way he goes about everything. He’s got a great personality. He’s a football guy who cares so much about the game, you could see that. Then how he’s built it, it’s just really cool. A ton of respect for him and what he’s done at Clemson.”

Hafley said he had the opportunity to meet up with Swinney during the College Football Playoff last year while Hafley was preparing for his final game as the co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State. Even with as storied a tradition as the one that follows Swinney, the Tigers’ coach took the time to sit down with Hafley—a brand-new, young coach—and offer his help. 

But though the two have built up a respectful rapport, Saturday’s game is all business. Clemson, armed with an artillery of talent at every position, is a formidable opponent. With arguably the best quarterback in college football, a star running back that Hafley described as “underrated,” and a lockdown defense that has allowed just about 13 points per game, Clemson has no doubt earned its No. 1 ranking. 

“You’ve got to try to stop them,” Hafley said. “That’s the name of the game on defense. They have great players. They’re really well coached. [Offensive coordinator Tony] Elliot does a good job schematically with what he has—it’s more than just the players.”

The BC program has seen an emergence of a run-pass option (RPO) over the last few weeks. Clemson already has a similar scheme installed with quarterback Trevor Lawrence. With a big quarterback who can both take and deliver hits—which BC has in Phil Jurkovec and Clemson has in Lawrence—the run game is a whole different ball game. In Jurkovec, BC has a surprise weapon on the ground, who, with long legs and a sturdy frame, ran for 94 yards last week in BC’s steamrolling of Georgia Tech

Though the RPO sort of goes by the wayside in the NFL for fear of injuring the team’s highest-paid player, a pro-style offense is no less valuable to college teams. It’s a valuable weapon for the Eagles, but they tend to focus on a more balanced, pro-style offense. Hafley said that his team’s likeness to a lot of NFL offenses is a result of offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, Jr., who spent about a decade coaching in the big leagues.

“You combine that with the other guys we have on staff and who have been coordinators in college football, and guys who’ve been around RPOs and quarterback run games, and some other stuff that maybe Frank [Cignetti] hadn’t done as much,” Hafley said of Cignetti’s NFL experience. “That’s what we’re trying to piece together. I just think it’s going to take some time. That’s why I’m confident and patient at the same time.”

BC enters the matchup as a 31-point underdog, but as the Eagles head down to Death Valley, a win could very well mark the start of a Swinney-esque career for Hafley. 

Featured Image by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor

October 27, 2020