Amid the seemingly-perpetual Steve Addazio hot seat rumors, it’s easy to forget Boston College had a winning season last year on the strength of its defense. It was one of the best in the country in 2015 before the Eagles had to replace their outstanding coordinator Don Brown, whom Michigan poached. For new coordinator Jim Reid, there was nowhere to go put down in 2016, simply because 2015 was so good up front. Despite losing three of the front seven, the regression was wasn’t horrible; dropping from 3rd in S&P+ defense in 2015 to 21st in 2016 is an outstanding accomplishment given BC’s talent level and the quarterbacks they faced in the star-studded ACC.
Boston College is a team full of guys being dudes; Addazio’s dead-pan delivery of his now viral mantra/recruiting pitch is one of college football’s greatest memes, for which I will love Addazio at BC forever. This isn’t the sadistic, “lol he sucks I hope he stays there forever,” sort of affection like I feel for coaches at a few of our perennially underachieving rivals (Dave Doeren, Butch Jones, and Will Muschamp; lol y’all suck I hope you stay in your current jobs forever).
Addazio is a good coach with a solid background coaching offensive line and tight end, plus a handful of seasons coordinating an offense under Urban Meyer. He’s handicapped by his roster, sure, which is handicapped by the school, location, resources, etc. But Addazio gets the most out of his roster with redshirts to build as much size and depth as possible. For his defense, at least, it’s worked well more often than not.
The “not” alluded to above reared its ugly head last week, when the Eagles gave up 515 yards on the ground to Notre Dame; most notably 207 to QB Brandon Wimbush. Yeah, a program known most recently for its solid defense, particularly against the run, gave up 515 on the ground. Who’s at fault? What’s the difference between Reid’s defense and Brown’s? Talent? Gap alignment? Overall scheme? The answer is a little of each.
On the surface, little has changed. Like Brown, Reid employs a 1 gap 4-3 predicated on line penetration and havoc. They still like to keep 7 in the box to deter the run and will thus show a lot of man cover 1 and cover 3 looks no matter the actual call. Harold Landry is the undisputed playmaker (more on mitigating him later) but they’ve had issues with gap integrity — particularly against Notre Dame — and they don’t have the speed to defend the edge well, especially against a quick, up tempo offense or speedy quarterbacks like they’ll face in Clemson.
Issues in gap integrity aren’t rampant, but when they did strike against Notre Dame they were dreadful. I noticed most seemed to take place in short yardage when linebackers shot the same gap; in standard man cover 1 when the linebackers simply read keys, the run defense is solid like you’d expect from BC:
But gosh, the busted run fits were glaring. Top linebacker Connor Strachan was out against Notre Dame, compounding the issues in run blitz gap integrity. He is now out indefinitely with the same knee injury, and his absence will be further magnified against an offense with as much jet motion and power runs as Notre Dame employed. Busted run fits were the primary culprit against the Irish, and ultimately why a 1 point game with 20 minutes remaining turned into a blowout in the final 20.
Clemson’s greatest concern entering Saturday’s contest is undoubtedly 9-tech defensive end Harold Landry. Perhaps the best speed rusher in college football, Notre Dame was surprisingly able to neutralize him even when aligned on the Irish right side. It’s painfully obvious right tackle has been Clemson’s weakness early in the season, and the staff would be wise to take note of Brian Kelly’s strategy (I can’t believe I said that) in defending Landry:
Kelly has his right tackle Tommy Kraemer defending the speed rush straight from the snap, and even then Landry almost got home. Kraemer has absolutely no concern for an inside move; he’s purely defending the speed rush outside. The running back (or in other cases, the H back) is there to defend any potential inside move (which Landry rarely utilizes; he’s a pure speed rusher), and in the play above you can see running back Josh Adams bounce inside to block the Sam fire from Kevin Bletzer.
This was one of Landry’s few plus plays on a day which found him with only 1 tackle and no sacks. Notre Dame has a potential 1st rounder at left tackle like Clemson does, so even when Landry is moved across from Tremayne Anchrum or Sean Pollard, his speed rush can be neutralized. Anchrum is likely capable of executing this strategy if he has the help inside which will allow him to focus on the speed rush.
Pollard will likely need outside help because I don’t see enough quickness for him to defend a wide rush, even if focused on nothing more than holding that edge. Given the issues at right tackle and Kelly Bryant’s propensity to take unnecessary sacks (based on the three game sample, at least), I’d bet Landry won’t go a consecutive game without a sack. It will be interesting to see how many times he is able to put Clemson off-schedule.
Bryant is extremely likely to make up for any rushing yardage lost though, evidenced by how much success Wimbush had on the edge and Bryant’s own well-regarded feet. Wimbush was phenomenally effective on QB counter and even a shovel option keeper, where he proved too quick for even Landry:
It’s Bryant’s prospects on the ground which have to be the most tantalizing aspect in Saturday’s game for Clemson fans. BC is more than capable against conventional rushing attacks, but QB counter and jet motion (two Clemson staples) have proven lethal at pulling linebackers and safeties out of their respective gaps; BC is already struggling with this and Clemson will try to prey upon it. QB counter, in particular, has been especially deadly with Bryant at the helm and especially deadly against BC last week.
Despite the statistics, BC fields a solid defense. BC’s approach against Notre Dame was sound, geared to focus on the run against a strong offensive line, freshman quarterback, and no proven receivers. Over-aggression, the subsequent blown run fits, and fatigue ultimately allowed Notre Dame to explode on the ground, and I don’t expect the same frequent man cover 1 and run blitzes from Reid on Saturday against a Clemson offense which is far more menacing outside.
Auburn and Louisville presented contrasting styles with outrageously different results in how to defend Clemson. Auburn was aggressive and took away Clemson’s short passing and running backs thanks to its elite defenders at every level; whereas Louisville knew it lacked the athletes to attack in the same manner as Auburn, and chose a soft, conservative approach which Clemson burned. Defenses will try and emulate Auburn’s aggression, but nobody else on the schedule except FSU has the dominant defensive line and physical secondary to pull it off press man coverage against Clemson. BC will play aggressively, but their gap issues and talent discrepancy will lead to big plays for Clemson. Look for a relatively slow start before big plays blow it open and Clemson’s depth takes over on a warm afternoon.