By Nate Crossman
August 30, 2006
CHESTNUT HILL - Boston College has felt disrespected a lot recently.
In 2003, when they thought they might be left out of the ACC expansion process, the Eagles felt disrespected. ACC officials had extended invitations to former Big East brethren Miami and Virginia Tech, but they left BC flapping in the wind, only to send the Eagles their invite the following year. Even when they were invited, BC folks didn't exactly feel welcome.
Last year, when tying Florida State for first place in the ACC's Atlantic Division got them only a spot in the MPC Computers Bowl against Boise State, the Eagles felt disrespected. Sure, BC dropped its ACC opener to FSU, lost to Virginia Tech and North Carolina in back-to-back weeks, and avoided Miami altogether.
But shouldn't convincing wins over N.C. State and Maryland to close the conference slate count for something? And what about the Eagles' five-bowl game winning streak, which was extended to a Division I-best six with a 27-21 win over the Broncos? And don't even get BC started about the MPC bowl banquet, which the players felt was more like a pep rally than a welcoming party.
So how do the Eagles feel about this season, for which they were predicted to finish third in the Atlantic Division, behind FSU and Clemson? You guessed it - disrespected.
"There's a lot of talk about our first season being a fluke," senior wide receiver Tony Gonzalez said. "We try not to look at the projections, but we know they've got us third. When we see that, it just gives us more motivation to go out there and prove people wrong."
Although BC constantly playing the disrespect card sounds a little like the crying wolf, it's had a point in past years. This year? Not so much.
All you have to do is take a look at who the Eagles lost to see that they have a lot of work to do if they're going to prove the prognosticators wrong.
On offense, they lost wide receivers Will Blackmon and Larry Lester, who accounted for 1,155 receiving yards and six touchdowns in 2005. They lost linemen Patrick Ross and Jeremy Trueblood, both three-year starters. On defense, they lost first-round NFL pick Mathias Kiwanuka's 16.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks, plus linebacker Ray Henderson's 75 tackles and three interceptions.
More recently, in a bit of oh-by-the-way preseason news, BC coach Tom O'Brien surprisingly hinted on the first day of August camp that two projected starters on this year's defense may not play at all. Strong safety Ryan Glasper, considered one of the best defensive backs in the ACC, still is recovering from offseason hip surgery. End Jim Ramella, the would-be replacement for Kiwanuka, may miss 2006 with a serious shoulder problem.
In their quieter moments, when they're not busy puffing out their chests to prove that their program belongs with the FSUs and Miamis of the world, BC's players admit that from the outside looking in, third place in the Atlantic Division probably looks about right.
"If you look at our losses, it's fair," Gonzalez said. "In our eyes, it's two places too short, but that goes for everyone in the league. The seventh-place team probably would say it's six places too short."
Junior quarterback Matt Ryan thinks it's less about feeling disrespected and more about feeling confident.
"If everybody on our team felt like we were going to finish in third, we'd be in trouble," Ryan said. "Everybody's confident in what we can do as a team. We all know we're capable of big things if people go out there and give a good performance day-in and day-out. That's our goal in camp: one good day after another."
The continuing maturation of Ryan will be an important - if not the most important - aspect of the Eagles' season, one that will help determine whether they're good enough to win key games against Clemson, Virginia Tech, at Florida State and at Miami.
Although he has only six career starts to his credit, Ryan's career has run the gamut of emotions. His first start came in the final game of the 2004 season against Syracuse, with a trip to the Fiesta Bowl on the line. Instead of securing its first-ever BCS bowl bid, BC suffered a soul-crushing 43-17 loss, with Ryan going a respectable 24-for-51 for 200 yards, but with three interceptions.
Ryan did not start again until last season's fourth game, at Clemson. In that one, he suffered a hit so vicious that it knocked his helmet off and him out of the game. But he came back to score on a one-yard run, and he set up the game-winning field goal in overtime. He started the next game against Ball State but did not start again until three games later, against N.C. State. He completed the season as the starter, earning MPC Computers Bowl MVP honors with a 256-yard, three-touchdown performance.
"That's just the ebb and flow of college football," Ryan said of his quixotic journey to starter. "I'll be here for five years, and I'm
going to have ups and downs. Obviously, that was a tough loss against Syracuse my redshirt freshman year. I didn't give a winning performance.
"But to come back last year and have a couple of big wins under my belt. ... I think you can't get too high or too low. You have to understand where you're at and what you're working toward, and if you can keep your cool through that stuff and never get too far down or too far up, you'll be all right."
O'Brien believes that Ryan's experience last year - he played in 10 of the 12 games - will help him enormously, even if it didn't all come as a starter.
"The more you play, the more (the game) slows down," O'Brien said. "It's a great advantage to a program to have a quarterback back, especially one as talented as Matt."
Another issue for the offense is where Ryan is going to throw the ball. His No. 1 target likely will be Gonzalez. The 5-11, 190-pound playmaker was third on the team last year with 414 receiving yards, and he caught a team-high five touchdowns.
After Gonzalez, there isn't much in the way of experience. BC's two running backs, L.V. Whitworth and Andre Callender, had more yards receiving than Kevin Challenger, who's listed as the starter opposite Gonzalez. Sophomore Brandon Robinson and senior Taylor Sele, listed as the two backups at wideout, caught only 21 passes and one touchdown between them last fall.
Again, however, the Eagles feel their receivers deserve more credit than they are receiving. Gonzalez is a proven performer, and many close to the program consider Robinson a rising star.
"I think it's important that me and Kevin and Taylor, and even the two freshman (redshirt freshman Clarence Megwa and Rich Gunnell), all do our part," Gonzalez said. "We all have the skill and the knowledge. It's only the playing time (some are missing)."
While the offense has plenty of work to do, it may be in great shape compared to the defense. Although the Eagles have an All-ACC-caliber player returning to the defensive backfield in junior free safety Jamie Silva, plus steady junior DeJaun Tribble at cornerback, the loss of Glasper turns an area of the team that should have been a strength into one with serious question marks.
O'Brien said he sees enough holes on both sides of the ball that he probably will have to play more true freshmen than typically has been the case during his time in Chestnut Hill.
"There might be more (true freshmen) this year than there's ever been," O'Brien said. "We'll see how that works out."
Strangely enough, the lone bit of good news for BC's defense might be junior linebacker Brian Toal's health woes in 2005. Toal suffered nerve damage in his neck last season that limited him, especially in the last three games. Then a shoulder injury in the spring knocked him out of action entirely.
The time off, however, made Toal yearn for the field. As a result, he played as well as he ever has in August camp. He even lost weight, making the already-fast linebacker even faster.
The one aspect of this year that the Eagles definitely have going for them is their schedule. Or maybe not.
BC could not have a more cupcake-ish non-conference slate. It plays the first game of the entire college football season on Aug. 31, at Central Michigan. After their only toughie, against BYU, the Eagles host Division I-AA Maine and Buffalo. Those should be four wins right there.
But then you look inside its ACC schedule, and you wonder what BC did to deserve it. First of all, it has to play all three heavyweights: Virginia Tech, Florida State and Miami. It has the Hokies on Thursday night, a night on which the Hokies rarely lose. Nine days after that, the Eagles travel to the Seminoles. Then they close the regular season with another Thursday night game, at Miami.
BC probably still will win its eight games and make it to its seventh straight bowl, but it also has the potential to take a few beatings.
Speaking of schedules, the Eagles might have some interesting news regarding theirs pretty soon. The buzz at BC's media day was that the team could replace Miami as FSU's opponent in the ACC's 2006 Labor Day opening game. Although it would be a tough opener for the Eagles, the game would provide them with the national exposure they're so desperately trying to receive.
It's exciting news right now, but wait until next year to see if it happens. If it doesn't, BC will probably feel - you guessed it - disrespected.
BOSTON COLLEGE INSIDER: UPDATES/ANALYSIS
- Last year, quarterback Matt Ryan earned the respect and admiration of his teammates for absorbing a killer hit at Clemson -- and then leading the Eagles to their first ACC win, an overtime thriller.
Locked in a battle with senior Quinton Porter, Ryan eventually earned the job as the full-time starter and ended his season as the MVP of the MPC Computers Bowl. He was undefeated as a starter last year, but now -- still only a junior -- he's the clear No. 1 and has to deliver for his team.
"I'm confident in my own abilities," Ryan said. "And we've got guys around me who can go out and make plays."
Ryan doesn't have his two top pass catchers -- Will Blackmon and Larry Lester -- from last year, so it will be interesting to see who emerges as the new leader. Senior Tony Gonzalez is the most likely answer, and everyone loves the potential of sophomore Brandon Robinson.
- Huge questions remain around BC's special teams. The Eagles already have recruited a big-time placekicker for next season, but they first have to get through this one. BC coach Tom O'Brien is hoping for the best.
Spotty incumbent Ryan Ohliger showed signs in August camp that he finally may be ready to kick consistently in major college football, but he also showed his usual inconsistency at times. The coaches thought Ohliger was pretty good when they brought him in. If he doesn't come through this season, it could make the difference between 6-6 territory and something really good.
- O'Brien emerged from his team's final (of four) fall scrimmage noting that the group lacked enthusiasm, which sometimes can be translated into a lack of leadership. Especially on defense, there's a stunning shortage of seniors.
The Eagles took a huge hit in the offseason in the "Sr." column, which is why two of their three captains in 2006 are juniors. Defensive leaders such as Mathias Kiwanuka, Al Washington, Ray Henderson and Ricky Brown, plus offensive veterans Jeremy Trueblood, Pat Ross and Blackmon, have to be replaced. It could be a difficult process.
The Eagles took some hits even before preseason camp got started. In addition to having three players taken in the first 115 picks of the NFL draft and losing other key veterans, BC lost two returning starters for what looks like the entire season. Safety Ryan Glasper (hip) and defensive end Jim Ramella (shoulder) are gone and not expected back soon. In addition, bulky defensive tackle Justin Bell (Achilles) isn't ready to return after missing all of last year.
The tight end spot is an interesting one for BC. The Eagles recruited talented Minnesota product Jordon McMichael (6-6, 240), but he came in fifth on the depth chart and was hurt in August. He won't be needed this year, with a less than spectacular but apparently solid group of four ahead of him. Ryan Thompson and Ryan Purvis appeared to be on top heading into the opener.
Because of the serious graduation and injury losses, O'Brien had to factor more freshmen than normal into the Eagles' two-deep. McMichael wasn't needed at tight end, but 10 freshmen and redshirt freshmen were included on the Aug. 31 depth chart -- all of them on defense and special teams. There were five true freshmen on the two-deep for Central Michigan, including running back Jeff Smith, listed as the No. 2 kick and punt returner. O'Brien called Smith the "quickest player" he's ever signed.
J. Survival Ross, who would have been no better than No. 4 among tailbacks, has made a smooth transition to the non-carrying fullback spot. Ross is strong, determined and can catch a pass out of the backfield, so he slots in well behind Mark Palmer at that position. Unless it's linebacker Brian Toal in a short-yardage situation, BC's fullbacks almost never carry the football.
The Big Picture
Seven straight bowl games. Six straight bowl victories, the longest current streak in the nation. Things are going well in Chestnut Hill. But the general feeling is that it's time for more, time for the Eagles to take the next step. The fans are always debating about it, and the players quickly bring it up when they talk about the 2006 season. Even the brass says it's time - time for Boston College to be ranked higher than the 20-30 range. That won't be easy this year, with three players taken in the first 115 picks of the NFL draft, other key performers gone, some season-wipeout injuries, a lot of kids playing, and a schedule that sees BC visiting Miami and FSU and hosting Clemson and Virginia Tech. This team's "time" may have to wait at least one more year.
The PooP BC fans love to jump on offensive coordinator Dana Bible, citing a lack of initiative and imagination. But those on the outside think otherwise, and it does seem that Bible usually gets the most out of what's handed to him. BC's recruiting doesn't tend to attract a lot of speed merchants, so the Eagles have to get it done with a hard-nosed ground game and spot passing. That's not always enough for the fans, who continue to peck at Bible via the message boards.
Done For Me Lately
Year BE/ACC Overall Postseason
1996 2-5 (6) 5-7 None
1997 3-4 (5) 4-7 None
1998 3-4 (5) 4-7 None
1999 4-3 (3) 8-4 Insight.com Bowl (L)
2000 3-4 (5) 7-5 Aloha Bowl (W)
2001 4-3 (3) 8-4 Music City Bowl (W)
2002 3-4 (4) 9-4 Motor City Bowl (W)
2003 3-4 (5) 8-5 San Francisco Bowl (W)
2004 4-2 (1) 9-3 Continental Bowl (W)
2005 5-3 (1A) 9-3 MPC Computers (W)
ACC: 5-3 (.625)
Overall: 71-49 (.592)
Building Blocks As always at BC, a program proud to call itself "O-Line U.," the whole thing will revolve around the offensive line. With tackle Jeremy Trueblood (NFL) and rock-solid center Pat Ross (graduation) gone, the line needs some rebuilding and was anything but the usual sure thing during August drills. In fact, through three scrimmages, Tom O'Brien still was looking for his final mix to lead the running game and protect QB Matt Ryan. Still, BC people feel it's tradition that the o-line will be ready, and it's tough to bet against a group led by pro prospect Josh Beekman.
Coming On Strong The Eagles took a hit with the loss of experienced linebackers Ray Henderson and Ricky Brown, but those departures may have opened the door for the most athletic group of LBs the program has had. Start with All-America type Brian Toal, back from a neck/shoulder injury. Then add in the talented and versatile Jolonn Dunbar (a captain), Tyronne Pruitt (a third junior) and always-aggressive sophomore Robert Francois, and the potential definitely is there. This group could provide a team in transition with a huge lift.
Cause For Concern? With the loss of so many important veterans, the early schedule - BC will host top-20 Clemson in its home opener - could cause a problem. Projected defensive starters Ryan Glasper (safety) and Jim Ramella (end) probably will miss the season with injuries. They joined the long list of departed vets, so things might not be settled by the second game. This team likely needs a win there to do anything special, especially with the two road games in Florida and prime-time specialist Virginia Tech coming to town for a Thursday night matchup.
The Whole Truth "We lost a lot of great players, but some of these guys are three-four years in the making. We have a chance to be a good football team."
- Boston College coach Tom O'Brien
Chart By: The BC Insider