By Mike Shalin
May 2, 2006
CHESTNUT HILL -- Of all the questions Boston College coach Tom O'Brien sought to have answered during spring drills and scrimmages, none was more complex than the situation on the offensive line.
If you know anything at all about BC football, you know that's not typically an area of concern in the spring and summer.
The defensive line, trying to survive the loss of All-American end Mathias Kiwanuka, also was full of concerns. But that's often a work-in-progress for the Eagles.
Questions about the offensive trenches and BC just don't go together. In fact, the school, which has sent a parade of blockers into the NFL and was hoping to have two more picked in this year's draft, likes to do its own take on Penn State being called "Linebacker U." by calling itself "O-Line U."
The facts certainly back up BC's claim, from Chris Snee (Giants) in 2004 all the way back to Bill Stephanos (Vikings) in 1979. Four BC linemen -- Marc Colombo (2002 Bears), Damien Woody (1999 Patriots), Pete Kendall (1996 Seahawks) and Joe Wolf (1989 Cardinals) -- went in the first round of the NFL draft. Snee and Doug Widell (1989 Broncos) were tabbed in the second round. There is always a long list of BC offensive linemen playing on Sundays.
Last year, the Eagles returned their line intact, as they headed into their first season in the ACC. This year, three starters are back -- as monster tackle Jeremy Trueblood and sturdy center Patrick Ross head to the NFL -- but only one seemed set at a position after BC played its annual Jay McGillis Memorial Spring Game on April 22.
Even that one slot isn't etched in stone. But Josh Beekman, considered one of the best offensive linemen in the conference, appears set at right guard.
"I think he's going to stay at right guard," BC coach Tom O'Brien said, and that was the closest the coach would come to nailing down a spot for the fall.
Jim Marten started the spring at left tackle and moved to left guard. Gosder Cherilus, the other returning starter, was at right tackle and moved to left tackle. Juniors Ryan Poles and Tom Anevski were in a battle for what appeared to be the right tackle spot, and there was a fight between juniors Kevin Sheridan and Ty Hall to replace Ross at center.
That's a special spot at BC. One of them will continue the recent line of Woody to Dan Koppen to Ross. Koppen, now with the New England Patriots (drafted in 2003) and recently seen throwing out a first pitch at Fenway Park, is confident that the Eagles will find a way to continue their impressive trend over the ball.
"They'll be fine," Koppen said. "They found somebody pretty good (Ross) to replace me, so I'm not worried."
Of course, the offensive line is something nobody ever seems to worry about at BC, which is what made all of the uncertainty of the spring seem so odd.
"You can't replace a Jeremy Trueblood and a Pat Ross," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "They're both character guys, and the way they played on the field was really something to watch. But we've got a lot of talent at the offensive line position. I think we're always going to be strong there."
O'Brien, who loves competition all over the field in spring and fall drills, was a bit disheartened in April by the lack of blockers stepping up to forcibly grab spots. That fact delayed many final decisions until preseason practice in August.
"(The competition) is good, but it's bad that no one's jumped to the front after 15 days (of spring practice)," O'Brien said. "The best hope was you'd come out of spring thinking you had five guys. With the four guys, we've been trying to work around and find the best combination to find what the best five guys are. We haven't even started talking about backups one way or another."
The best guess for the fall lineup is Beekman (guard) and Poles (tackle) on the right side, Marten (guard) and Cherilus (tackle) on the left, and Hall in the middle.
Trueblood and Ross weren't the only seniors who have to be replaced on this BC roster. Kiwanuka, wide receiver Will Blackmon and linebacker Ricky Brown were being talked about by NFL types in April. Others, especially linebacker Ray Henderson and wideout Larry Lester, also will be missed.
Losing two starting linebackers and two defensive linemen (Kiwanuka and two-year starter Al Washington) could mean trouble, but there are players left behind to fill the voids. The linebacker spot will be led by Brian Toal (recovering from a shoulder injury), and there are four other returning letter-winners. Up front, B.J. Raji and Nick Larkin both were starters last year, but O'Brien said, "They have to improve and get better."
In his pre-spring look at his team, O'Brien called the defensive front a "big area of concern." That's understandable when you lose a guy such as Kiwanuka, the Big East defensive player of the year as a junior before moving into the ACC and excelling there despite an injury that resulted from a cheap shot.
One key in this group could be mammoth tackle Ron Brace (6-3, 343), who will be looked at to stop the run up the middle. That was Washington's primary job in the past.
Complicating the questionable defensive line situation was the injury factor. Justin Bell (Achilles), Jim Ramella (shoulder) and Keith Willis (hip), all set to be part of the mix, were held out of spring drills.
While O'Brien was looking for answers to his other questions in the spring, he was doing it with some important people sitting out in all areas. Toal, whose injury wasn't considered serious when he first went down late last season but was virtually invisible in his bowl game return, was still resting but is said to be OK for the fall.
Toal had company on the sidelines. Safety Ryan Glasper, who will lead an experienced defensive backfield in 2006, was out after hip surgery. Tight end Trey Koziol (knee), fullback Tom Walls (shoulder) and safety Brian Young (knee injured in the spring) also were held out of action.
With all of the questions, though, this is the most settled the BC quarterback position has been in years. Ryan, who took the job away from fifth-year senior Quinton Porter last fall, is ready to lead the team for the next two seasons.
Ryan was picked off three times while throwing the ball 53 times in the spring game (he was credited with 37 completions on some very unofficial stats), but the kid is calm and cool back there, and his strong arm allows him to throw any type of pass necessary. He also can move pretty well, meaning the option, used by BC in the past, again will be an option.
Last year, Ryan was 121-for-195 for 1,514 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions. He also was plus-94 in the rushing department, with 136 yards worth of gains.
Ryan will be backed up by sophomore Chris Crane, but the key words there are "backed up." There is no quarterback controversy at BC. O'Brien said he hadn't decided yet whether he will return to something he's done in the past, giving the backup second-quarter action as a means of keeping him prepared for a possible injury to the starter.
Spring 2006 Overview
ACC fans have learned their lesson: The best teams in the Big East are quite capable of big things in their new environment. Virginia Tech and Miami played for the ACC title in 2004, and Boston College tied for the third-best conference record (5-3) in its debut last fall. Under 10th-year coach Tom O'Brien, the Eagles are all about stability. Over the last four months, there were more than 25 changes among assistant coaches around the league; at BC -- again -- there were none. Offensive coordinator Dana Bible is in his eighth season with the Eagles. Frank Spaziani is in his 10th, his eighth as defensive coordinator. Assistant head coach Jerry Petercuskie also has been with O'Brien from the start of his tenure. No other ACC program, and few in the nation, can come close to that level of coaching continuity.
Probable 2006 Starters
- -- redshirted ^ -- six/more 2005 starts
- -- injured/missed spring drills
Coming On Strong
The Eagles have by far the best combination of talent, experience and depth at defensive back that they have had under O'Brien, and that should lead to lots of sure tackling and very few mistakes. Rock-solid returning starters: RB L.V. Whitworth, LT Gosder Cherilus, LG James Marten, RG Josh Beekman, DT B.J. Raji, LB Brian Toal, S Ryan Glasper, S Jamie Silva. Also looking good: QB Matt Ryan (five 2005 starts), RB Andre Callender, WR Tony Gonzalez, WR Brandon Robinson, LB Tryonne Pruitt, LB Jolonn Dunbar.
Cause For Concern?
Everyone knows that special teams can cost a team games, even when it otherwise outplays its opponents. The Eagles have an inconsistent kicker, a punter who missed spring practice, and a brand-new long snapper. Also: tight end, defensive line, depth at multiple positions.
On The Sidelines
The following players missed all or most of spring drills: P Johnny Ayers (baseball), DT Justin Bell (Achilles), S Ryan Glasper (hip), TE Trey Koziol (knee), DE Jim Ramella (shoulder), LB Brian Toal (shoulder), FB Tom Walls (shoulder), DT Keith Willis (hip), S Brian Young (knee).
The following scholarship athletes left the program in the last 12 months with eligibility remaining: DE Jeff Burns (transfer/Delaware), QB Karim El Nokali (chose to graduate), LB Franz Joseph (transfer), WR Jason Lilly (transfer/Delaware), FB Paddy Lynch (chose to graduate), DE Jake Ottolini (chose to graduate), DE Brady Smith, DT Robert Ziminski (chose to graduate).
Chart By: David Glenn