The Clemson Tigers (6-0, 5-0 in ACC) enter Saturday’s contest against the Boston College Eagles (4-2, 3-2 in ACC) still undefeated for the season and as heavy favorites. But the Tigers haven’t looked perfect at times this year, as best shown last week when they struggled until late in the game to put away Syracuse in a 47-21 win.
Note: This interview was conducted before news broke last night that Trevor Lawrence tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss the game. You should still find these insights on Boston College very relevant.
Boston College has moved on from Seven-Win Steve Addazio, making a seemingly savvy head coaching hire in former Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley. The Eagles are off to a decent 4-2 start in Hafley’s first season. What are the biggest differences you’ve seen in how they play compared to the Addazio era?
Where to begin? The change is night and day. For starters, the offense is significantly less predictable. Addazio wanted the team to play a power run game. His goal was to incorporate tempo, but when you make your running back carry the ball immediately after busting off a 20-yard run, things don’t really work out in your favor. It also doesn’t help running into more stacked boxes than anyone else. So unpredictability is a key difference. The play has evolved into a modern offense, incorporating more pre-snap motion and play-action.
The team defense also plays more with their eyes towards the ball by nature of Hafley’s defensive scheme. With more defensive backs on the field, BC tries to avoid big plays. It’s not close to perfect yet, of course, but the Hafley-era Eagles focus more on fundamentals. The defense tries to make it easier on the linebackers to see what’s right in front of them.
Besides the play, Hafley brings an aura of positivity and passion to the program. He’s transparent and preaches love. The team feels more together and much more tied to the community. The openness is on display every day through social media, and he’s much more available and honest. He’s a fantastic ‘haf’time interview as well.
Following up, Hafley is also known to be an excellent recruiter. With that in mind, what do you see as the ceiling for the BC program under his leadership?
For starters, the team can break the 7-win ceiling that has haunted them for the entire Daz era. Beyond that, I think Hafley can actually push for double-digit win seasons. The recruiting front is where it starts, and BC has had poor recruiting classes for years. Hafley exudes a feeling that it’s all changing. The attitude and positivity shows up in the recruiting process. Not to mention a modern offense to go along with the head coach’s defensive expertise. Nearly every commit has made note of the change in style as a positive influence. All of this has raised Hafley’s ceiling. Of course it is still early to definitively say anything, but I think Hafley has the potential to put BC back in the conversation of a consistent top-25 program.
When I think about BC football, I think about an old-fashioned, physical approach of tough defense and between-the-tackles running. But it seems that Hafley and the staff have really turned Notre Dame transfer quarterback Phil Jurkovec loose. He’s second in the ACC in pass attempts (224, only behind current Duke and former Clemson QB Chase Brice’s 233) and second in passing yards (1,671, only behind Trevor Lawrence’s 1,833). Is this approach to take advantage of Jurkovec’s skill set, or does it signal a greater change in philosophy for the Eagles?
It’s more indicative of a philosophy shift. Hafley seems to be more of the same ilk as the friends-of-Sean-McVay, just a defensive guy. I know I’ve said it a few times already, but he wants a more modern offense. He brought along OC Frank Cignetti, who has loads of experience with top quarterbacks. It’s a pro-style scheme that employs more pre-snap motion and misdirection. They’re looking to space defenses out and put more stress on linebackers. More RPOs, more play-action.
Jurkovec’s skill set fits in nicely with the vision of the pass-happy offense. With the way the team was built, it would have been easy to slowly transition to what they wanted in an offense, but I think the weapons available gave them the sense they could do it right now. It’s not that he’s anti-physical running, but the ground game just hasn’t been all that effective. BC employs more a zone-blocking scheme now, and that transition has definitely been a struggle for the offensive line. Overall, this is the sort of BC offense you should expect to see from here on out.
Staying on the subject of Jurkovec, what do you think are his biggest strengths and weaknesses as a quarterback?
Jurkovec is a big guy. He’s 6-foot-5 and looks all of it. He’s tough to take down and has good escapability (you’ll probably hear at least one Ben Roethlisberger comparison on the broadcast this weekend). He has an excellent deep ball with a solid arm, and occasionally throws some incredible touch passes. Jurkovec is a dual-threat as well, consistently making plays with his feet. The offense employs designed runs, and the quarterback has led the team in rushing on a couple of occasions. His height and strength lend themselves well when it comes to short yardage gains.
I think he has a tendency to hold on to the ball too long. Sometimes he doesn’t make the fastest decisions, but I think that’s because he’s always looking for the big play. His decision making and confidence need to improve, and I think they will. Still, there seems to be one or two really head-scratching throws a game.
Thinking ahead to Saturday when BC is on offense, who else besides Jurkovec should we be keeping our eyes on as the biggest playmaking threats? Is there anyone who you think might present a matchup problem for Clemson?
You’ll need to keep an eye out for Zay Flowers. The sophomore wide receiver is incredibly fast and has already broken a number of ankles in the open field. He can take the top off the defense, and BC incorporates him on jet sweeps as well. Ohio State transfer Jaelen Gill is dynamic when they get him the ball in space too, and CJ Lewis has been a revelation, really helping to move the chains.
Hunter Long might present the biggest matchup problem. He’s one of the best tight ends in the conference. A dynamic athlete, Long is probably Jurkovec’s favorite target. He can line up anywhere and is very smart, likely to consistently find those soft spots in an injury-riddled defense. He has sure hands, and his size and athleticism cause problems for opponents.
On the other side of the ball, what are BC’s biggest strengths and weaknesses defensively? And which players should we keep an eye on?
BC has some solid talent in the defensive backfield. Coach Hafley has taught them well. Brandon Sebastian and Josh DeBerry have been excellent in coverage. The pass rush has been much improved from last year, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a strength. Linebackers Max Richardson and Isaiah McDuffie play with a lot of energy and are capable of blowing up plays. They’ll be all over the field. The defense has some proclivity to creating turnovers as well.
The defense has work to do, but the biggest issue is still team speed on defense. For all of the talk of instilling fundamentals, the start of the season has seen a number of missed tackles. That was shored up a bit more this past weekend against Georgia Tech, but it’s still something to keep an eye on. The other major weakness is discipline, unfortunately. The team is pretty emotional, and we’ve seen a number of unnecessary penalties in most games. Hafley has commented on it and taken responsibility, but they need to lock it up, especially when the game gets physical.
Clemson opened up as a 32-point favorite over Boston College, but they were 46-point favorites against Syracuse last week and struggled for a while to deliver a knockout blow before finally pulling away for a 47-21 win over the Orange. So, while I won’t ask you for an official prediction, I will ask if you think there are any areas where the Eagles could give the Tigers some trouble and make this game more interesting than the sports books are expecting. (Maybe some extra sour grapes motivation from Hafley after Clemson’s win over Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl last year?)
It’s a lot of points to cover, but I wouldn’t want to be on the opposite side of Clemson ever. I think BC can put some points on the board, and I think this coaching staff is more willing to take more risks. I’m not sure there’s a particular area where the Eagles can attack the Tigers, but I think the best thing they can do is control the ball and score. Jurkovec can’t have one of those head-scratching plays that go the other way. With the injuries on defense, BC needs to attack and take advantage wherever possible and play unafraid.
Last year’s Fiesta Bowl will probably be in the back of Hafley’s mind. He was so close, and while the expectations aren’t the same this time around, I’m sure he’s excited for another chance. Hafley will likely scheme up something to be enough of a nuisance to Lawrence, but there’s only so much you can do against someone that unreal. I would lean on the side of, “throw the ball a lot and put up points.”
A big thank-you to Niraj for sharing some insights on the Eagles. To see my answers to his questions, head over to BC Interruption