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TGS 2012 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...BOSTON COLLEGE EAGLES
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


There’s a new phenomenon in college football regarding grace periods for coaching hires that runs counter to former norms in the industry that would give newly-hired mentors at least four or five years before rendering judgement on their suitability to continue in their jobs. Just ask Notre Dame; the days in which it would “honor” contracts and give an overmatched sort such as Gerry Faust the full duration of his deal are long gone. Look how quickly the Fighting Irish pulled the plug on Ty Willingham within the last decade. Besides, contracts now include buyout clauses which are triggered in various locales every year.

But at some outposts, the old and established ritual of coaches gradually losing their grip on their positions is alive and well. At a place such as Boston College, where HC Frank Spaziani is entering a crossroads campaign in his fourth year at the helm of the Eagle program after BC slipped to a 4-8 mark a year ago, its first non-bowl season since 1998. And the Eagles had to scramble down the stretch and win three of their final five games to avoid some real embarrassment last fall.

Make no mistake, despite a not-too-terrible 20-19 career mark, Spaziani is under the gun entering this fall. Another sub-.500 campaign and out-of-the-money finish in the ACC Atlantic, such as a year ago, would confirm an unmistakable downward trend for the Eagle program, where the bar has been raised since the days of Doug Flutie (more on that golden era in a moment).

Spaziani, of course, assumed his position in a most non-traditional fashion after the 2008 campaign, as AD Gene DeFilippo had pulled the plug on predecessor Jeff Jagodzinski after, yep, just two seasons. But it was an odd set of circumstances that set in motion the change, as technically, Jagodzinski was replaced for what the AD considered insubordination after “Jags” interviewed for the vacant New York Jets head coaching position without the blessings of his boss (who told Jagodzinski beforehand that he would be terminated if he as much as talked an NFL team).

The unraveling of the Jagodzinski era at Chestnut Hill, however, was considered a one-off by most observers who knew the personalities and the dynamics involved were unlikely to be replicated anytime soon.

Now, however, ACC sources indicate that the regime of Spaziani, who was promoted from the defensive coordinator position to the top spot upon Jagodzinski’s dismissal, could expire in a more traditional manner, as a steady erosion of the on-field product over multiple seasons is a time-tested recipe for coaching dismissals.

And, as many regional onlookers concur, Spaziani could be fast approaching that sort of situation this fall.

Perhaps Spaziani is simply a Wade Phillips-type coach who is more suited to coordinator duties. Like Phillips, Spaziani does know defense. But offense? Not really. Indeed, some area wags have suggested that Spaziani’s ideas are so conservative that he would be comfortable with Charles Krauthammer as his offensive coordinator. And who could argue after the 2011 Eagles sagged to the depths of national offense stats last fall (ranking a pitiful 112th in both scoring and total offense).

Maybe, just maybe, Spaziani is simply a better fit for a defensive coordinator role. Certainly, his towering and menacing presence makes a good look for a defensive coach. We’d also like to dare DeFilippo, as tough a guy as he might be, to be the one to tell the intimidating, mustachioed Spaziani that his coaching services are no longer required. Most ADs would probably require reinforcements to undertake such a dangerous task; perhaps DeFilippo should ask Marvelous Marvin Hagler, a longtime resident of nearby Brockton (from where Rocky Marciano also hailed), to stand by just in case.

Jokes aside, Spaziani is no fool, and recognizing that his ideas of offense are not conducive to longtime employment, has given the keys to the attack to new o.c. Doug Martin, not long ago the head coach at Kent State, and authorized him to do whatever it takes to get the strike force moving again this fall. In fact, Spaziani made a clean sweep on the offensive side of his staff, with four new assistants having been added.

That BC has been having so much trouble moving the ball the past few years seems a bit odd for a program that for so long fielded potent and often stylish offenses. Of course, the Eagles have found it hard to approach the excitement of the Doug Flutie years for the past few decades; can it really be 28 years since Flutie won the Heisman in 1984? We also recall his frosh year of '81 like it was just yesterday, and certainly remember the night in which we realized Flutie was a special force, when leading BC to a thumping 38-16 win in the 1982 opener at Texas A&M, when most believed the just-hired Jackie Sherrill would have the Aggies primed to destroy the northeast Eagles in the debut of a new era in College Station. Then-soph Flutie, however, had other ideas, passing for 346 yards and 3 TDs and running for another score, all more than two years before Gerard Phelan and the miracle in Miami, the Heisman, and the Cotton Bowl win over Houston.

Yet, for the most part in the decades since Flutie, BC has had representative offenses, often with a pro-style gleam. The Hasselbecks, Matt and Tim (also known as Mr. Elizabeth Hasselbeck, a very, very nice reward for Tim’s days at BC), and later Matt Ryan were all quarterbacks of considerable repute in Chestnut Hill. Which is why the recent downturn on the attack end has so many Eagle backers panicked...and Spaziani justifiably worried about his job.

The proposed makeover began in “winter practice” as Spanziani likes to refer to it; “spring” football, might say Spaziani, is for wimps. Martin began with tweaks to the offensive scheme but also spent extra time trying to smooth out the rough edges for jr. QB Chase Rettig (left), who has performed in fits-and-spurts since starting his first games as a frosh in 2010. Martin hopes to add some sizzle to what was a very rudimentary passing attack last year, one in which Rettig completed only 53.6% of his passes and rarely looked deep downfield.

But as Martin quickly discovered, BC might still be short of playmakers, the sorts who could make it easier for Rettig to improve upon his completion percentage and mere 12 TD passes from a year ago.

Unfortunately, one potentially vital attack-end contributor, RB Montel Harris, who battled injuries last year before gaining an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA, was dismissed from the team in spring. His recovery from a knee injury was slow, and he had been supplanted in the lineup, but any chance of his return and the possibility he could still be a game-changer are now by the boards. Harris, who was also the school’s career rushing leader with 3735 yards, eventually landed at Temple, where he will be eligible for Steve Addazio’s Owls this fall.

Rettig does have some familiar receiving targets on hand, including what might be the top TE in the ACC, 6'6, 251-lb. sr. Chris Pantale, who figures to be a more-integral part of the Martin offense after catching 21 passes a year ago. The top-rated member of the most-recent recruiting class is also a TE, Mike Giacone, who was also considering Rutgers, Maryland, and UConn before deciding upon the Eagles. Rettig’s top two wideouts, Bobby Swigert (44 catches last year but only 10.1 yards per reception) and Colin Larmond, Jr. (right; 34 catches LY and the deep threat of the receiving squadron, gaining nearly 17 yards per grab), also return. Some unwelcome news was the NCAA’s denial of a sixth year of eligibility for WR Ifeanyi Momah, who could have been a contributor this fall.

Look for Martin to shake up the aerial game, with more moving pockets for Rettig and more emphasis on Pantale as the main underneath target while stressing added intermediate and downfield routes from his wideouts.

Four starters do return up front, and new o.c. Martin was reportedly pleased with the progress of his offensive line in “winter” ball. Bookend sr. tackles Emmett Cleary (6'7) and John Wetzel (6'8) do a good job of blocking out the sun, if not always protecting Rettig. The runners are mostly bangers, lacking the flair of a healthy Harris, although jr. Deuce Finch (left, in the rain at Maryland last October) ran with more panache in the winter game, gaining 196 yards on 27 carries, than he displayed all of last year when not having a run longer than 21 yards in his 157 carries. Finch is running back 1-A entering fall practice; jr. Andre Williams, another between-the-tackles sort who gained 517 YR last fall, is 1-B.

Another ground threat, in specific situations, could be soph QB Josh Bordner, a better runner than Rettig who offers more possibilities in short-yardage and goal-line situations.

Meanwhile, the defensive acumen of Spaziani and his stop unit coordinator Bill McGovern will be put the test this fall after the premature departure of do-everything LB Luke Kuechly (right), who departed for the NFL (where he was a first-round pick of the Carolina Panthers) with a year of eligibility remaining. But after winning the Butkus Award and putting himself in position for a nice payday, no one, even Spaziani, blamed Kuechly for his bolt to the NFL.

Even with Kuechly (whose 191 tackles led the nation last year) flying all over the field, BC’s defense wasn’t quite as rock-ribbed last fall as it has been previously, sagging to a 59th ranking vs. the run (151 ypg) and 70th overall, raising further concerns that Spaziani might even be losing a bit of his once-golden touch with the stop unit. Remember, the Eagles led the nation in rush “D” in 2010 (only 82.7 ypg and 2.6 ypc!) and ranked 13th in total defense just two seasons ago.

But you don’t get better on “D without a force such as Kuechly, and, as expected, compensating for Kuechly’s departure was a hot topic in winter and will likely be again in the fall. Spaziani and McGovern would like to keep impact LB Kevin Pierre-Louis (left, dragging down a Wake Forest runner last October) at an OLB spot, where his playmaking bent could be best utilized, but his services might be more required in Kuechly’s former spot in the middle unless soph Sean Duggan proves he can handle the responsibilities. The well-named Steele Divitto (what a name for a BC linebacker!) is a returning starter at the other OLB spot.

A key for the defensive front, which yielded more ground than usual last fall, will be to get 302-lb. sr. DT Kaleb Ramsey (right, shown chasing down a Nevada back in the Jan. 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco), who was granted an extra year due to medical hardship caused by last season’s foot injury, back on the field to dominate as he did when last seen in 2010. The foot has been slow to heal, however, and Ramsey was a bystander in “winter” work, though he is expected to be ready to contribute this fall. Which could make for a formidable DT pairing alongside 292-lb. sr. Dillon Quinn.

The Eagles, however, could use some more help from their pass rush after ranking 114th nationally with only 11 sacks all of last season. Perhaps soph DE Brian Mihalik, a bit undersized at 233 lbs. but with a good burst from the edge, can emerge as the sort of pocket-collapser Spaziani needs.

There are also concerns in the secondary, where depth was so minimal in the winter game that injuries forced a backup kicker and fifth-string QB to take the field at the safety spots for several snaps. Three new soph starters are projected at the top of the depth charts in the defensive backfield, with sr. SS Jim Noel the only returning starter in the mix.

Spaziani will not have much time to get everything in working order this fall, as the schedule opens with a revenge-minded Miami team (which BC upset in the finale last November) out of the chute. By mid-October, Spaziani will have already faced the Canes and ACC defending champ Clemson, both at Chestnut Hill, but will have been on the road at Northwestern, Florida State, and Georgia Tech, all games in which the Eagles are likely to be underdogs. The season also closes with a three-week meatgrinder of Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, and NC State, the latter always playing its best football down the stretch for former BC coach Tom O’Brien. Only lower-division Maine, on September 8, looks to be a gimme.

Despite the recent downturn, Spaziani’s teams have continued to excel in the underdog role, covering 9 of their last 11 vs. the number when receiving points. Conversely, Alumni Stadium has proven no help vs. the number the past two seasons, as BC is a poor 3-10 against the line as host that span.

Summary...Spaziani’s future at BC could be a developing storyline as the season progresses. As mentioned above, the schedule features few breathers, and whatever improvements new o.c. Doug Martin can make with the strike force, they had better manifest early in the season. Without significant offensive upgrades (including noticeable improvement from jr. QB Chase Rettig), and with the “D” now minus the do-everything Kuechly, the sort of breakthrough Spaziani needs to save his job could prove very elusive. We think odds are less than even-money that Spaziani survives beyond this season...but we’re glad it will have to be DeFilippo, and not us, if someone has to tell the intimidating Frank that it might be time for a coaching change. Whatever...the clock is ticking in Chestnut Hill.


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