Boston College generated four more takeaways in 2020 than it did the previous year despite playing two fewer games. The Eagles’ defense forced 21 turnovers last season, the third most in the ACC and good for 10th nationally.
But takeaways are only part of the playmaking equation. Wrapping up ball carriers in the backfield and finishing sacks are equally important.
“At the end of the day, that’s the bottom line,” second-year BC defensive coordinator Tem Lukabu said after Thursday’s spring practice. “It’s all fine and dandy to be around the ball, but, hey, when it’s you and the ball, [or] it’s you and the quarterback, and you’ve got him in your arms, you gotta get him down to the ground.
“At this point, a lot of the guys that played, they know what to do. We gotta get it done, especially in crunch time.”
Lukabu said that spring ball is a “perfect time” to work on fundamentals. Cornerback Josh DeBerry says he’s looking to improve his technique.
The All-ACC Honorable Mention from a year ago picked off one pass and forced two fumbles in 2020, the first of which he memorably ripped away from Duke wide receiver Damon Philyaw-Johnson in BC’s season opener. Now a junior, DeBerry knows the next step is making more of those game-changing plays.
“I’m just looking to get my technique down,” DeBerry said. “Get the little things right. My little steps, my read steps. And get my pedal a little tighter so I can make better breaks and be more efficient and be a little bit earlier so I can, instead of a PBU, get an interception.”
The Eagles’ defense elevated its play in practically every statistical category last year after a historically bad 2019 campaign. Under Hafley and Lukabu, BC jumped from 125th to 73rd in total defense and 101st to 60th in scoring defense. Arguably the most dramatic difference was the Eagles’ pass defense, which climbed 40 spots from 122nd to 82nd.
That said, where BC remained behind the eight ball was against mobile quarterbacks. It was especially troubling down the stretch. Opposing signal callers averaged 83.4 rushing yards in the Eagles’ final seven games of the 2020 season. Slow reaction times, bad angles, and poor tackling allowed Virginia Tech’s Hendon Hooker, Louisville’s Malik Cunningham, and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong to all reach or eclipse 130 rushing yards in their respective matchups with BC.
Lukabu says his unit now has a greater understanding of why those struggles occurred. He made it clear that the staff and players will work through them this offseason.
“A lot of the issues that we did have versus certain guys like that, we didn’t do what we are supposed to,” Lukabu said. “You give [the opposing quarterbacks] a little bit of credit, but a lot of those issues are fixable, and they will be fixed.”
When stopping a dual-threat signal caller, or really any dynamic offense, speed helps. The Eagles spent a significant amount of snaps in a nickel formation—with one fewer linebacker and an extra corner—last season.
Lukabu said that the 4-2-5 formation was a byproduct of the depth of his defensive backfield and the scheme that he and Hafley are implementing. He pointed out, though, that each gameplan is specific to that week’s opponent. “If, on a given week, we feel like, hey, we need to have these guys out there to have success, that’s what we do,” Lukabu said. “At the end of the day, with so much spread or just speed from offenses, you want to try to match athletes with athletes the best you can.”
BC lost its top-two linebackers—Max Richardson and Isaiah McDuffie—this offseason, both of whom declared for the NFL Draft after the season. Richardson, the heart and soul of last year’s locker room, ranks 11th all-time in program history with 316 total tackles, and McDuffie led the team with 107 in 2020.
It’s a lot to replace, however, Lukabu is confident BC will make the adjustment. He says “that’s the beauty of our program.”
“It’s still about ‘For the Team.’ It’s still about ‘Tough. Love. Compete.’ The message has not changed,” he said. “Are we going to miss those guys? Yeah, we’re going to miss them as people. But, the reality is, that’s how it goes in a real program. The next man up has to be ready to go, and that’s the feeling I’m getting right now.”
While the Eagles lost strong voices on the defensive side of the ball, they also brought in a few more through the transfer market. Former Florida State safety Jaiden Lars-Woodbey and former Temple linebacker Isaiah Graham-Mobley were respected for their leadership at their previous schools and have the chance to carry that over to BC. With time, Lukabu explained.
Before taking command, they’ve had to learn about the team’s culture as well as the defense’s dynamic. The last step is proving themselves on the practice field, or, in Lukabu’s words, show their teammates that they’re “about that action, boss.”
Lukabu thinks that Lars-Woodbey and Graham-Mobley are on schedule to do that.
Where there hasn’t been any changes is within the coaching staff. Hafley retained all of his assistants, including Lukabu, and the 39-year-old DC is energized about the cohesion that’s formed.
“I’m excited that we’re all on the same page on year two, where we’re not just feeling each other out and trying not to step on each other’s toes,” Lukabu said. “All that side stuff is out of the way, and we can really attack it and get into business much quicker.”