Entering this past weekend of games, Boston College middle linebacker Nick Clancy led all of college football with 43 tackles. More than half of those were racked up in last Saturday’s contest against Northwestern, where his 24-tackle performance earned him ACC player of the week honors. But if it weren’t for an injury during Clancy’s junior year of high school, he might not have even played football in college.
The baseball diamond, not the gridiron, was the field Clancy enjoyed playing on the most when he was growing up. Baseball always came more naturally to him, and he had to work harder at football, especially in high school. Clancy was a pitcher, so a tear of his ulnar collateral ligament his junior year ended his season, and required intense rehabilitation to get back on the mound. He was then left with an important decision.
“At the time, I had a few offers for football when I was still playing baseball,” Clancy said. “It was either have the surgery on my elbow and sit out a few games for football-I hadn’t had any offers for baseball-and then be able to play my senior season for baseball, or just do rehab, not have the surgery, not miss any football games.”
After sitting down with his father, he ultimately decided on the latter, and chose to hang up his baseball cleats for good. It was a decision that followed in the footsteps of his older brother Chris, who Nick is very close with. The elder Clancy played football at Ball State, and served as a role model for Nick throughout his high school and college careers. He owes a lot of his success to his brother.
Once he decided that football was the sport he would play in college, Clancy had a number of schools to choose from. His criteria were threefold: academics, athletics, and location. BC certainly fit that mold, as did Northwestern, which is located a little more than an hour from his hometown. But after an official visit to the Heights, Clancy knew BC was right for him.
“What set BC apart was this gut feeling I got,” Clancy said. “I just loved everything about the school. I walked off campus, looked at my dad, and said ‘I think BC’s the one.'”
It also helped that at the time the Eagles were the No. 2 team in the country. Led by QB Matt Ryan and head coach Jeff Jagodzinski, the Eagles went 11-3 in 2007 and won a bowl game against Michigan State. In Clancy’s first year as a redshirt freshman, the Eagles went 8-5, were ranked as high as No. 17, and made it to the ACC Championship game. Despite the success, Jagodzinski would not continue as BC’s coach for the 2009 season.
The decision to hire the team’s defensive coordinator at the time, Frank Spaziani, was met with praise by most of the team, including Clancy. Although the two coaches have very different mentalities-Spaziani is much more old-school, which comes from his years coaching at Navy-hiring someone who the locker room could trust made a huge impact. There was some anxiety amongst the players after Jagodzinski’s dismissal, especially those who had been recruited by the former coach. But once it was known that Spaziani, a 16-year veteran of the program, would be taking the helm, players exhaled.
For Clancy, having his defensive coordinator become his coach made for a smooth transition. But his star didn’t immediately take off. In his freshman year, Clancy recorded 17 tackles in 10 games, and had less tackles in his sophomore year. Last season, Clancy averaged 34 plays a game as a backup outside linebacker, but going into this year his career high for tackles in a game was still only seven.
After former BC middle linebacker Luke Kuechly headed to the NFL, his old position was open. Clancy grabbed hold of the starting spot, and hasn’t looked back. He leads the nation with 14.3 tackles per game, and played 98 out of the 100 snaps in BC’s last game against Northwestern. He’s become the defensive anchor BC players and fans have gotten used to with Kuechly in the position over the past three years.
“It feels great to finally be able to help our team and compete on a high level on every down, and not just coming in on every other series like I have in the past,” Clancy said. “I’d rather have no tackles, though, and a W than 24 and a loss.”
In the years that have ensued since Clancy first stepped foot on campus, the team has put up more losses than most players were used to. After going 17-10 during Clancy’s first two years at BC, the Eagles are just 12-16 since then. It’s been a bit of an adjustment for Clancy, who won a state championship in high school and went to an ACC championship game his first year here.
“It’s tough,” Clancy said. “Tough searching for that winning edge. This year, especially, it’s frustrating because I know how much talent we have, and I feel so confident in our team this year to win games.”
A big reason there’s so much talent is because of the hard work Clancy put in during the offseason. His dream is to make it to the NFL, and that was the biggest factor in his decision to come back for a fifth year with the team. He didn’t answer at first when Spaziani asked him whether he’d like to play another year, but after some deliberation, Clancy knew he still desired to make it to the next level. Ever since he made that decision, he’s been all business.
“When I told Coach I wanted to come back my fifth year, I just started working, trying to improve my body, started eating right,” Clancy said. “I started studying a lot of film, watching Luke play, memorizing plays, increasing my football IQ-doing everything I can to make that dream come true.”
Clancy was able to learn a lot from Kuechly, the ACC’s all-time leading tackler. The two were lifting partners and roommates in the summer, and became very close during their time together at BC. After Kuechly turned into the player that would eventually become the No. 9 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Clancy soon realized it was he who could learn a lot from Kuechly, instead of Kuechly learning from him.
“I picked up his preparation for the game,” Clancy said. “If there’s one thing in my career I lacked, [it] was that knack for studying the game. That’s what set him apart from competitors, the fact that he treated football as not just a game but more as a profession. He was constantly in the film room studying, always in his playbook, always preparing so well.”
Clancy has also echoed his leadership. As one of the oldest and top players on the team, he’s looked to for guidance and gladly takes on that role. When Clancy was a freshman and didn’t have it all figured out, there were a number of seniors that showed him the ropes. He now does the same for the younger players by taking them under his wing and showing them what to do and what not to do.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment from high school is the focus needed to succeed in practice. It takes a certain mentality to be successful, and Clancy comes out everyday with the necessary energy and enthusiasm. If need be, he’ll get on someone, but he notes that it’s important not to talk down to the person, but instead give them constructive criticism and encourage them to get after it on the next play. That approach, combined with him leading by example, has made the transition to college much easier for many of the younger players on the team.
With Clancy now a graduate student who has classes at night, the dynamic is much different than how it was just a year ago. He usually strolls into practice at 11 or 12, while all the undergrads are rushing in from class at 1 or 1:15. That’s where a lot of his leadership comes into play as well: helping guys who haven’t completely figured out how to balance academics and athletics adjust.
“It’s funny looking back on it,” Clancy said. “Just a year ago, I was doing that: As soon as class is over, you rush to Hillside, get something to eat, and then you sprint over to Yawkey to get ready for practice. I definitely feel not old, but graduated.”
With his college career nearing its end, Clancy has two goals: to bring BC to a bowl game and to put himself in a position to make the NFL. He doesn’t want to make any predictions just yet, but Clancy is very confident in the team this year. For someone who’s dream is to play in the NFL, Clancy couldn’t have asked for a better start to the season. But like a true Eagle, he would trade his individual success for the team to be 3-0.