After taking a took a look at the Boston College offense, it's time to now examine Top Five Key Players on the Defensive side of the ball for the Eagles. These five players will make or break the Eagles' chances in 2010.
Last season, as a true freshman, Kuechly made the most of his rare opportunity to start at linebacker for the Eagles. With the Eagles' All-American LB Mark Herzlich out battling cancer and Mike McLaughlin missing the first four games of the season with an Achilles tear, Kuechly's performance was nothing short of sensational.
The true freshman started 12 games and appeared in all 13 for BC, registering a ridiculous 158 total tackles, good for second in the nation, and more than double the total tackles of the next closest Eagles' defender, Marty Bowman (73). In BC's bowl game against USC, Kuechly registered 14 tackles en route to being named the Emerald Bowl Defensive MVP (despite the Eagles falling to the Trojans 24-13).
Head coach Frank Spaziani is quick to heap praise on his young LB phenom, saying:
"He's a coach's dream. The guy works hard, plays hard. He loves football. He wants to get better. And he has instincts. He does a lot of good things."
If by "a lot of good things," Spaz means 158 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, four pass breakups, a sack, an interception, a fumble recovery and a touchdown (the first he'd scored at any level of competitive football), then yeah, Kuechly accomplished quite a few good things last season. Kuechly's performance was a big reason why the Eagles managed to win eight games and appear in their 11th consecutive bowl game, despite breaking in a new quarterback, a new coaching staff and an inexperienced LB corps.
Not bad for a kid from Ohio who came to the Heights receiving little praise -- only the 44th best outside linebacker of the class of 2009 according to Rivals -- and playing in a different defensive spot (he played safety as a senior in high school).
If there's one area on defense where the Eagles desperately need to improve in 2010, it's in the pass rush. After losing both DTs B.J. Raji and Ron Brace to the NFL in 2008, the Eagles went from a team ranked 26th nationally in sacks (2.5 per game) to a team ranked 103rd a year later (with a meager 1.38 per game). A failure to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks resulted in some big days for the opposition:
Wake Forest's Riley Skinner ... 25-of-35, 354 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT
USC's Matt Barkley ... 27-of-37, 350 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT
Florida State's Christian Ponder ... 29-of-42, 341 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT
Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen ... 26-of-39, 246 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
This season, the responsibility of making opposing passers' lives uncomfortable will increasingly fall on senior end Alex Albright. After earning All-ACC honorable mention honors after his sophomore season, Albright has been hampered by injury the last two years. In 2008, as a junior, his season was cut short after only two games because of a neck injury, and last year, Albright was limited by a right ankle injury suffered in the Florida State game. When healthy, Albright is one of the Eagles' best pass rushers. If he can stay healthy this season, Albright will be one of the Eagles' difference makers on defense, keeping a relatively inexperienced set of opposing QBs off balance.
3. Mark Herzlich
There has been much written about All-American linebacker Mark Herzlich and his successful battle with Ewing's sarcoma. Even if Herzlich doesn't return to his 2008 form -- a year in which he won ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors -- his mere presence on the field will serve as an inspiration to the rest of the Eagles' defense. Herzlich was held out of contact drills in the spring, so the effect on play he'll have this fall remains to be seen. Still, it's hard to count out a guy who has already defied the odds and beat a rare form of bone cancer.
If Herzlich turns in a performance that is even a fraction of his 2008 performance -- which included 110 tackles, not to mention almost single-handedly winning a game against Wake Forest -- he will make an already solid group of linebackers that much better.
4. Wes Davis
Another area where the Eagles took a step back last season was in the secondary. BC went from a team that tied USC with a nation-leading 26 interceptions to grabbing just 15 takeaways a season ago. The Eagles' passing defense allowed 224.5 yards per game, good for 10th in the conference. This season, BC loses CB Roderick Rollins and SS Marcellus Bowman and will have to rely on senior FS Wes Davis to anchor the secondary.
Davis, a 6-foot-1 senior from California, led the Eagles' defense last season with three interceptions and ranked sixth on the team with 46 tackles. After missing 2007 due to injury, Davis has returned to start the last 25 games at free safety for the Eagles. Along with senior CB DeLeon Gause, Davis should prove to be a leader in the Eagles' secondary.
5. Damik Scafe
If anything tells you how woeful the BC pass rush was last season, it's that DT Damik Scafe tied for second on the team for sacks with ... wait for it ... just two. Not to mention that both of those sacks came in the regular season finale against a Maryland Terrapins side with a wafer-thin offensive line. Like Albright, Scafe has battled injury throughout his career, including a neck/shoulder injury that sidelined him for two games last season.
Scafe, a senior DT from Connecticut, did lead all defensive linemen with 21 solo tackles. Like Albright, Scafe will have to make a difference on the defensive line if the Eagles have any hope of winning another Atlantic Division title.
Honorable mention: CB DeLeon Gause, DE Ifeanyi Momah, RT Brad Newman
Let us know who you think will make the biggest difference on this year's Boston College defense in the comments.