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Rock-solid Program Excited, Optimistic, Relieved About Debut

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

August 27, 2005

The Big Picture
Boston College Insider: Updates / Analysis

CHESTNUT HILL — Ever since Boston College announced on Oct. 12, 2003, that it had accepted an invitation to become the 12th and newest member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the small Jesuit school has been abuzz with palpable excitement over the Eagles' long-awaited flight from the chilly Big East to the warmer -- and more hospitable -- climes of the ACC.

There' s not just a new league in town, as BC' s advertising blitz proclaimed upon its official ACC arrival on July 1. There' s also a new $27 million, four-story, state-of-the-art football facility that came on line in March, serving as the anchor of not only BC' s program, but also 44,500-seat Alumni Stadium. There' s a renewed sense of commitment to the school' s academic and athletic mission to excel on all fronts.

With all of that comes a growing sense of anticipation and anxiety about the step up into a big-time college football conference.

' We' re excited about the fact that we' re going to be in the best football conference in the country,' said BC coach Tom O' Brien, who last year guided the Eagles to a 9-3 record, a four-way share of the Big East title and a sixth consecutive bowl berth. ' We' re excited that we' re going to be in the best conference in the country, no matter what you want to throw out there as far as sports or academics. I think that' s the most exciting thing for our school.'

There was no greater example of the warm reception to which BC was treated than the ACC' s 2005 Football Kickoff gala at The Homestead in Hot Springs, Va. The Eagles not only were welcomed with open arms by their ACC brethren, but they also were treated to some surprising preseason respect. With 15 returning starters, BC was picked to finish second in the Atlantic Division (behind Florida State), while its best player, senior defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka, was selected as the ACC' s preseason player of the year.

' I definitely felt that we were welcomed,' said Kiwanuka, who was named the Big East defensive player of the year last season after leading the league with 11.5 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss, numbers that would have led the ACC as well. ' The only regret I had was that the seniors who had to go through all that stuff last year weren' t at the ACC' s media day to meet those guys and to see how welcoming they were.'

It was a stark contrast to BC' s swan song as a Big East lame duck last year.

Shortly after making its intentions known to join the ACC, BC, a charter member of the league (in football and basketball), went from being one of the Big East pillars to one of its biggest pariahs. The Eagles endured cold shoulders — on and off the field — for the better part of two seasons.

So, initially, it seemed a bit awkward when the team suddenly found itself the ACC' s object of affection.

' It was a little bit like that,' O' Brien said of the trip BC' s entourage made to the ACC' s Football Kickoff. ' I think the ACC was very excited with the opportunity to get a 12th football team. It was a long haul to get there, but we made it and I think we all understood that when we went to the Big East (Media Day in East Rutherford, N.J.) last year, they weren' t real happy with us and we weren' t going to be treated too friendly by any of ‘em. But we lived through it, and we survived.'

Now comes the real survival test for the Eagles, who squandered a chance to win the Big East title outright in a sobering
43-17 setback against Syracuse in the regular-season finale Nov. 27 before a jam-packed Alumni Stadium crowd. Now comes the challenge of stepping up to a conference where BC will compete annually against the likes of Atlantic Division foes FSU, Clemson, Maryland, N.C. State and Wake Forest.

While consecutive losses to the Demon Deacons in the last two seasons might suggest otherwise, the Eagles proved they were prepared to compete in the ACC after rebounding from their Syracuse debacle to post a convincing 37-24 bowl victory over the Tar Heels. It was BC' s fifth consecutive bowl triumph, giving the Eagles the nation' s longest bowl winning streak: 2000 Aloha (Arizona State, 31-17), 2001 Music City (Georgia, 20-16), 2002 Motor City (Toledo, 51-25), 2003 San Francisco (Colorado State, 35-21) and 2004 Continental Tire.

With the changes in latitudes have come markedly different changes in attitudes — mainly from the players themselves — about BC' s goals and aspirations for its inaugural ACC season. Now that the stakes have changed, the Eagles will be bidding not only for their seventh consecutive bowl berth, but also for an appearance in the inaugural ACC title game.

' I' d say the overall expectations of the players themselves have risen a little bit,' said senior center Pat Ross, a team-co captain (with Kiwanuka) who will anchor the only line in the ACC that' s returning all five starters. ' It' s hard to say how the players felt when you' re a freshman because it' s hard to really understand what they' re feeling, but I feel like the last couple of years as a team, we know we can play with anybody in the country.

' We' re not afraid of anybody, but we just feel confident as a team. I think that' s been the biggest change. We don' t know what other people think about us, but we know how we feel.'

Respect for all. Fear of none. That' s been O' Brien' s mantra ever since he arrived at BC from Virginia, where for 15 seasons he served as a top assistant to former UVa coach George Welsh. Drawing upon his military background, O' Brien, a 1971 Navy graduate and a former officer in the Marines, used that motto in his efforts to whip BC' s wayward program back into ship-shape after it had been rocked by a devastating gambling scandal in 1996.

Now O' Brien will be back for a second tour of duty in the ACC, this time as BC' s ninth-year head coach (57-39).

' The only thing I remember is that I know where the stadiums are, and I know where the visiting locker rooms are,' O' Brien said. ' All the coaches, with the exception of Coach (Bobby) Bowden at Florida State, have changed. A lot has changed about the ACC. When I left, they didn' t have Miami, Virginia Tech or Boston College in it. I think the three of us will add a lot to the conference.

' But we certainly now are an Atlantic Coast Conference, from Boston or Portland, Maine — wherever our coverage goes — all the way to Key West, Fla.'

If BC expects to follow Virginia Tech' s example by making a positive first impression in the league, it will have to rely upon fifth-year quarterback Quinton Porter. The strapping 6-5, 235-pounder from Portland, Maine, must shake off any rustiness from a 2004 redshirt year he spent working on the Eagles' scout squad against the first-team defense.

' I got rid of that in the spring,' said Porter, who went 5-5 and threw for 1,764 yards and 14 touchdowns as a junior starter in 2003 before injuring his right throwing hand and giving way to backup Paul Peterson, who supplanted Porter last year. ' My first few practices in the spring I was kind of shaky, but then I got through that and I had a good spring game. Coming into camp, I' m feeling pretty sharp. I don' t feel like there' s so much rust right now, and I' m ready to go.'

Porter will have at his disposal a veteran line and a receiving corps led by seniors Larry Lester and Will Blackmon, a pair of game-breakers who began their BC careers at cornerback. Lester was converted two years ago, while Blackmon, a three-year starter at corner, made the switch in the spring in a move aimed at bolstering a unit that lost three of its top four players from a year ago.

Blackmon, who is expected to retain his duties on BC' s special teams as a punt and kick returner and work on BC' s nickel package on defense, could become the first three-way player in O' Brien' s tenure, if not BC history.

'Anything' s possible,' Blackmon said. 'I just want to be on the field as much as I can. That' s all I' m hoping for.'

Despite losing Blackmon to the offense, BC' s defense still retains the services of the all-world Kiwanuka. In addition, the Eagles boast a deep and talented linebacker corps that, for the first time in O' Brien' s nine seasons at The Heights, returns all three starters. Seniors Ray Henderson and Ricky Brown and sophomore sensation Brian Toal combined for 238 tackles last fall. Toal won Big East rookie of the year honors after ranking as the team' s No. 2 tackler (77) behind Brown (81).

With a beefed-up conference schedule that no longer will feature the likes of Rutgers or Temple, the Eagles will get an early indoctrination into the rigors of the ACC when they open conference play with back-to-back Bowden Bowls. BC hosts FSU in its Sept. 17 conference opener and follows that by playing its first conference road trip at Clemson.

Those are just a few of the perks associated with BC' s move to the ACC. It was what helped Porter focus on the future and not dwell on the past --or present -- during his time on the scout squad.

'Yeah, absolutely,' Porter said. ' It was definitely something to look forward to --a big, exciting season. Last year, we had a lot of excitement as well, but it felt like people were still looking ahead to the ACC. Now it' s here. Everyone' s excited about it.

'It' s just good to be here.'

Finally, the Eagles feel like they' re in a good place in the ACC — a place where they are wanted, and not on the most wanted list.

The Big Picture

The slogan around town says, "There' s A New League In Town," and BC finds itself in a whole new world after officially joining the ACC. The early read? It' s still football, and this still should be a pretty good team. The Eagles are shooting for the program' s seventh straight bowl, and the school holds a national-best five-game postseason winning streak. The new competition tends to scare some of the rooting faithful, but the media picked BC to finish second in the Atlantic Division, and first place isn' t out of the question.

The PooP
With all the excitement over the Eagles joining the ACC and the emphasis on the Sept. 17 league opener against Florida State, coach Tom O' Brien said his players can' t afford to look past BYU and Army. "We haven' t exactly burned up the last two openers we' ve been in," O' Brien said. "There' s a lot of things that we have to take care of in preseason, because if we play the way we did in the last two (openers), we' ll get blown out in Provo." Two years ago, the Eagles lost to Wake Forest at home in the opener. Last year, they averted disaster with a dreary 19-11 win at Ball State.

Done For Me Lately
Year Big East Overall Postseason

1995 4-3 (4) 4-8 None

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)

Big East: 33-36 (.478)
Overall: 66-54 (.550)

Building Blocks
Known as "O-Line U" because of its ability to produce offensive linemen for the pros, Boston College again has a strong and experienced bunch of super-sized blockers. In fact, all five players up front are returning starters, a rarity for any team. Three of them – tackle Jeremy Trueblood, guard Josh Beekman and center Pat Ross – have earned national attention, and the 6-9, 330-pound Trueblood is as imposing a left tackle as there is in the college game.

Coming On Strong
O' Brien loves competition at every position, but injuries helped sophomore L.V. Whitworth get a leg up in the battle for the starting tailback spot. Last year, Whitworth split time with three others as the Eagles waded through injuries, and the team' s run of 1,000-yard rushers came to an end at six years. But leg injuries to both Andre Callender and A.J. Brooks (a possible redshirt this year) left Whitworth, who ran for 651 yards and scored five times in 2004, as the only able-to-perform member of the trio for parts of August. Sophomore linebacker Brian Toal (the Big East' s defensive rookie of the year last season), who arrived at BC with the projection that he' d play both ways, is poised to help the offense in crucial short-yardage situations.

Cause For Concern?
A season-ending ankle injury to tackle Justin Bell left the depth of the defensive line in question. The group, led by All-American and preseason ACC player of the year Mathias Kiwanuka, already was trying to overcome the graduation losses of Tim Bulman and Phil Mettling. The search for suitable depth in August left this question unanswered.

The Whole Truth
"I think this team has a chance. We obviously have some problems that we have to solve in preseason. If we don' t, it' s not going to make any difference. We have problems to solve, and we have to get those solved in order to be a good football team."

-- Boston College coach Tom O' Brien


Boston College Insider: Updates / Analysis

They came from the same high school in Indianapolis, they're both much bigger than the average football player, they both have new – and shorter – haircuts, and it's possible that both will be taken in the first round of the 2006 NFL draft. Now defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka and offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood are ready to lead their team into the ACC.

"I appreciate every accolade I've gotten so far," said Kiwanuka, a projected top-10 NFL pick. "But it's one of those things that if you pay attention to it, it can go down real fast."

Kiwanuka, who has been criticized at times for taking plays off, aims to get more consistent by treating every snap with importance. Trueblood, the hulking left tackle, sported a shaved head (Kiwanuka traded his trademark deadlocks for a shorter style) in August after an injury-filled junior year, hoping to turn things around health-wise.

In a bit of irony, Will Blackmon, who once beat out Larry Lester for a starting cornerback spot, will be starting alongside his fellow senior at wide receiver this fall.

"That is funny, wow," said Blackmon, who will play on both sides of the ball (nickel back on defense) and return kicks and punts. "Just shows you cornerbacks are better athletes. They're always knocking our hands, but maybe we're better athletes."

Quarterback Quinton Porter is faster. He's bigger. He has learned a lot of football in the almost two years since he last played in a game. Now the fifth-year senior, who sat out last year in an unusual redshirt plan (as QB Paul Peterson was the 2004 MVP), is again the main man.

"Things happen awfully fast on the football field," BC coach Tom O'Brien said. "Hopefully, things will have slowed down for him."

O'Brien said he thinks Porter, once rushed into action as a true freshman, will be fine. The coach actually wants the QB to take more chances, have confidence in his ability to get a ball to a half-covered receiver, and not be afraid to make mistakes.

While O'Brien likes to say, "I guess it'll be us Clydesdales against those thoroughbreds," in the faster new league, BC knows that ACC teams will have to adjust to the Eagles' power game just as much as the Eagles will have to deal with their speed. That's something several opposing coaches also talked about in the preseason.

"That's going to be the fun of this year," O'Brien said, "figuring out how we match up."

BC fans, long bitter over not being able to tailgate until just two hours before home games because of neighborhood restrictions, got a small boost when the school added 30 minutes to that pre-game time. The Eagles often see a lot of empty seats at kickoff, as people slowly make their way into the stadium. The extra time might help that situation and perhaps give the team a pre-game boost.

Just as the Eagles' unremarkable 2005 recruiting class took another hit when touted defensive back Andre Jones didn't qualify academically for the second year in a row, the coaches got a jump on 2006. By mid-August, BC had received commitments from 12 high school seniors, the most the program ever has had going into a season. The group included six players from Massachusetts and eight from New England, including quarterback Bill Flutie, the nephew of legendary BC pass-catch combo Doug and Darren Flutie.