February 14, 2008

An early look at the 2008 defense

Defensive Analysis:

Now that signing day has come and gone, it's time to take a look at what has been this past season and what may be in the coming season. We will start this two part analysis with a look at the Defense.

Quick Stats:

The Eagles defense finished as the #2 rushing defense in the country and the #19 defense overall. In the ACC, they were #3 in total Defense, #4 in Scoring Defense, #4 in Passing Defensive Efficiency, #6 in Turnover Margin (+6), tied for #4 in Sacks (34), and #2 in Red Zone Defense.

On the other side of the spectrum, they finished last in Opponent First Downs (although they did play 1-2 more games than most of the conference so according to average first downs per game, they improved to 7th), 8th in opp. 3rd Down Conversion Percentage, and last in Passing Yards per game. More analysis of these numbers will follow.

Awards:

MVP: Jamie Silva - The leader of the defense. Led the nation in interceptions (8) and finished 6th in the conference in tackles (125), nearly 9 per game. To put that latter number in perspective, he was the only non-linebacker among the top 20 tacklers.

Most Improved: Ron Brace - Blossomed into a dominant run defender and made everyone forget about the pre-season loss of B.J. Raji.

Best Freshman: DeLeon Gause - filled in admirably for the injured DeJuan Tribble, and became a regular in Frank Spaziani's defensive back rotation. Wouldn't have been in the ACC CG without him.

Best Sophomore: Mark Herzlich - While Ron Brace unexpectedly burst onto the scene, Herzlich continued to improve off his stellar freshman year and has become a playmaker for the Eagles D. Late in the season, he provided the best rush off the edge and was the team's most consistent linebacker throughout. Look for him to explode next year.

Best Junior: Ron Brace

So long Seniors: It is with a heavy heart that we bid farewell to a handful of fabulous senior defensive players for the Eagles. JoLonn Dunbar, Dejuan Tribble, Jamie Silva, Nick Larkin, Taji Morris and Tyronne Pruitt all played leading roles in propelling this team to the top of the Coastal Division.

Dunbar and Silva were the heart and soul of this defense and among the Conference statistical leaders at their respective positions. Dunbar finished as the #17 tackler while his defensive omnipotence was epitomized by the team's polar performances against Maryland without him and then at Clemson with him. To understand his invaluable contribution to the Eagles season, one need not look any further than his goaline stand against James Davis and his batted pass on the ensuing play, allowing BC to stay in the game early against Clemson.

Silva was, without a doubt, the defensive player of the year for the Eagles. Silva played a starring role in the ACC Championship Game and the Champs Sports Bowl and may have just finished the greatest single season by any BC defensive back.

Tribble, the third defensive senior star, finished fourth in the conference in interceptions, despite playing three fewer games than nearly everyone else. He was sorely missed against Maryland and in the ACC CG against Virginia Tech, where his playmaking ability would have undoubtedly been a boon against two offenses bent on exploiting the BC secondary. His four year career was one of the best for a BC defensive back in quite some time.

Larkin, Pruitt, and Morris were steady all season long, and while they rarely had the headlines accompany their play like some of their senior teammates, BC would not have been one of the better defensive teams in the country last season without them. Larkin finished 9th in the ACC in sacks with 6 and proved to be a very proficient run defender at DE, always holding the point of attack and rarely allowing the back to bounce it outside. Larkin and Pruitt were major reasons why the BC rush defense finished second from the top of the nation's rushing defense standings.

Draft outlook: Expect Tribble to garner Day 1 interest (late 3rd to early 4th) depending on his 40 yard dash time, while Dunbar and Silva will almost assuredly be second day draft picks. All three should fill valuable roles on any NFL roster, despite their draft position. If nothing else, they're instinctive players who will fill leadership voids on their respective teams.

Returning players:

Those players who either played significant roles last year or were out due to injury/suspension are as follows (* indicates starter, including Brian Toal and Raji who undoubtedly would have started, class status is as of today):

Defensive line: *Alex Albright (So), *Jim Ramella (So), Austin Giles (So), *Ron Brace (Jr), *B.J. Raji (Sr), Damik Scafe (R Fr), Brady Smith (So), Allen Smith (So), Thomas Claiborne (So) (likely to be moved to OL)

Linebackers: *Kevin Akins (Jr), *Mark Herzlich (So), *Brian Toal (Sr), Robert Francois (Jr)

Secondary: DeLeon Gause (Fr), Razzi Smith (So), Roderick Rollins (So) and *Paul Anderson (Jr).

So, contrary to public opinion, BC will return a seasoned corps that will almost assuredly maintain its place amongst the conference's best defensive units. Moreover, players such as Wes Davis, Marcellus Bowman and to a lesser extent, Chris Fox, have had some experience in the defensive backfield, but their careers have been truncated by injury. Will Thompson, Dan Williams, and Dan Mulrooney are three freshman who should factor in as contributors. Mulrooney will be given the opportunity to start at free safety if he's not moved to running back, while Thompson will almost certainly move into the 2-Deep at LB.

Incoming Freshman:

Every year, there are a few precocious freshman who prove that they can step into the 2-Deep from day one. Expect this year to be no different. BC's incoming class is particularly blessed with a supremely talented secondary (undoubtedly the topped rank group in the ACC with 8 incoming recruits). As opposed to previous classes, this group is blessed with ACC size and speed. Though the majority will redshirt (Dominick LeGrande, Donte Elliot, Chris Hayden-Martin and Isaac Johnson are the likely candidates) a few will battle for immediate playing time (Okechuckwu Okoroha, Donnie Fletcher, and Ugo Okpara in particular). While it's unlikely any of the incoming linebackers will see the field, Kaleb Ramsey and/or Max Holloway could crack the defensive line rotation as BC likes to substitute frequently and desperately needs some pass rushing improvement off the edge.

The defensive strongpoint:

2007:

Each week, the Eagles proved time and again that they could make every opposing offensive attack one dimensional. They consistently stopped some of the nation's best backs (Tashard Choice, C.J. Spiller, James Davis, Brandon Ore), forcing teams to throw the ball far more often than they wanted. This was a major reason why BC finished with the #2 Red Zone defense and the second least amount of rushing first downs. Their defensive line did a superior job of taking on blockers, allowing their active linebacking corps and safeties to plug the holes before the back could get to the second level. The Eagles gave up a paltry 2.7 yards per rush, almost 1 yard below the 3.5 league average. Perhaps the most staggering statistic was the 8 rushing touchdowns allowed: 7.5 TDs less than the league average.

2008:

It's scary to think that the BC rush defense could actually improve next year, but in looking at their personnel, it's not at all unlikely. B.J. Raji and Brian Toal were arguably the top defensive players on the team heading into last year, so their return from a year off should buttress a solid returning front seven. While Silva won't be there for run support, I don't think we'll see as many attempts even get to the second level with Brace and Raji demanding 3 interior lineman. The speed of this LB unit should further mitigate backs attempts to bounce it outside. If there is some hope for opposing rushing offenses, they should be able to exploit the undersized Des in Albright and Ramella, as evidenced by Michigan State's attack in the bowl game. All in all, expect to see much of the same next year with offenses completely ditching their rushing attack in favor of their more advantageous matchups in the secondary.

The weakest link:

2007:

While looking at the stats, many would conclude that the biggest problem facing the defense was the passing defense; but dig a little further and you'll find that the primary problem wasn't with the secondary. Since the front seven made teams essentially one dimensional, opposing offenses were forced to throw far more often against the Eagles secondary than any other team in the league (opponents threw, on average, 8 more times per game against BC). This was often compounded by the potent BC offense that forced some teams to throw more while playing from behind. These numbers would be slightly more lopsided when you consider that BC also had the #1 passing offense; thus, ACC opponents had a higher pass attempt/per game figures because of playing BC than they would from playing their average opponent and since BC can't play themselves, their average was not inflated from a similar pass-heavy opponent. Moreover, BC finished with the #4 Passing Defensive Efficiency ranking, primarily because of their league high 25 interceptions.

The major reason for the relatively high completion percentage and substantial yardage allowed was due to an anemic pass rush. Though the Eagles did finish tied for 4th in sacks, rarely did we ever see them get to the QB with relative frequency. Opposing QBs often had 5 or 6 seconds to scan the field and find the open WR without being harassed off the edge. Akins, Herzlich, and Albright were effective in stretches, but rarely were able to frustrate the opponent. This was the principal reason why BC had trouble getting teams off the field on 3rd down, something that came back to bite them in the ACC CG.

2008:

Without a doubt, this is the most important improvement the coaching staff needs to make in the offseason. This young secondary can ill afford a weak pass rush. Perhaps we will see more of Mark Herzlich coming off the edge that was a regular attack towards the latter part of the season, but also here's hoping that players like Albright and Ramella will be able to generate their own pressure. BJ Raji is a better pass rusher than Ron Brace, so his presence should certainly help.

Two questions facing the defense:

Will any projected starters be moved to fill holes elsewhere (i.e. the message board favorites of Dan Mulrooney from safety to running back or Kevin Akins from outside linebacker to safety)?

While the thought is that both players could be very good at either position (particularly Akins, who would most assuredly positively impact his draft stock with a move to safety), I'm uncertain that there will be any players moved into the secondary with such an outstanding class of incoming freshman. That may bode well for a Mulrooney move to running back, though the staff is quite high on his abilities in the secondary. Unless BC can find a pass rushing specialist at DE in the offseason, I think the staff will be hesitant to move Akins from his rush backer position.

Who starts in the secondary?

While early returns would suggest Rollins and Gause will be the leaders out of the gate at cornerback, I'd be shocked if one of the incoming freshman doesn't challenge for one of the nickel or dime positions at the very least (particularly Okpara or Fletcher, who is already on campus). They both have the size and speed combination that teams with big, fast wideouts like FSU and VT have exploited since our move to the ACC. Rollins and Gause are both aggressive, physical corners, but their lack of size will cause the staff to look longingly in the direction of the freshman.

There are even more questions at safety where Paul Anderson was the weakest defensive starter last season while Silva was lost to graduation. Furthermore, players figuring to challenge for the starting spots such as Bowman and Davis will be returning from injury. If Anderson doesn't display marked improvement by the Spring, odds are Mulrooney won't be moved to running back and will thus compete for the starting position. Best guess at this point is that Bowman and Mulrooney will start, while Davis and Okoroha will be given every opportunity to supplant them.

2008 Snapshot:

Since the BC offense won't likely be as explosive next season, they're going to need to rely on their defense to win more ball games. BC should be very good against the run, but they will lack experience in the secondary. BC's defense kept a lot of potential points off the board with interceptions by veteran guile, so to expect a repeat of that performance would be severely unrealistic. If BC is to tread water relative to their performance last year, then they must find a way to generate a pass rush to take pressure off their secondary. Albright, Herzlich, and Ramella all showed flashes of being able to do this off the edge, but if they can't improve on a sporadic rush then perhaps Allan Smith or even one of the incoming freshman (Ramsey or Holloway, in particular) will be the best alternative.

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