Beneath the drab cement ceiling holding up Yankee Stadium, in the corner by a loading dock littered with maroon cloth, gold helmets, and white backpacks, Truman Gutapfel stood alone.
The action was on the other end of the dark hallway in the cargo wing of ‘The House That Jeter Built.’ Some reporters huddled around Tyler Murphy. The graduate transfer quarterback had captivated Chestnut Hill with his sharp dekes and breakaway speed, and many wanted to get in a few final questions before he embarked on a professional career as a wide receiver. Others gravitated toward Jonathan Hilliman. The freshman running back sensation had just run for 148 yards on 25 attempts in the Pinstripe Bowl. Even in a losing effort—a heartbreaking 31-30 overtime defeat to Penn State—you can build a solid narrative around those numbers.
But Gutapfel was largely ignored by the media, despite being one of the most important players in the game. The sophomore defensive tackle had three tackles and a fumble recovery. His unit allowed a mere 82 rushing yards on 29 attempts, a 2.83 per attempt average. Impressive numbers, but no surprise to the few but proud Boston College diehards out there.
Defensive coordinator Don Brown had worked wonders with a mostly no-name squad that season. In 2013, the Eagles allowed 5,557 yards and 376 points, respectively ranking 97th and 85th in the nation. In 2014, BC—thanks to Brown’s aggressive, blitz-all scheme—made a huge jump: 11th in total yards (3,754) and 18th in points (246).
Gutapfel wasn’t satisfied.
After muddling through mundane questions about the game and postseason plans, Gutapfel fielded one about the defense. It’d be losing important pieces at each position, many of whom would be replaced by relatively inexperienced sophomores. How did he expect BC to stack up again next year?
Without hesitation, Gutapfel replied:
“We can be the best defense in the nation next year. All of the tools are there.”
How right he was.
When thinking back to the fall of 2015, fans will recall an anemic offense and painstakingly brutal losses. 19-16 to Notre Dame at Fenway Park. 9-7 in the rain at Duke. 3-0 to Wake Forest at Alumni Stadium, with two missed field goals and a thrown headset. Five losses by a combined 14 points. A 3-9 record, without a conference win.
History will remember 2015 as one of college football’s most notable teams, if not the best team to ever finish last in the ACC (sarcastic cheers abound). That’s because of one thing: BC fielded one of the best defenses of all time.
The Eagles ranked in the top 10 in every significant defensive category in 2015. They led the nation in yards allowed (3,054) and yards per game (254), and only allowed 15 touchdowns all season. Even when you take out BC’s two FCS blowouts against Maine and Howard—wins by a combined score of 100-3 in which BC’s defense ceded just 102 total yards—the Eagles are perched among the nation’s best. Football Outsiders’ advanced statistics agree, putting them high in defensive efficiency, touchdown rate, and available yards percentage.
But the Eagles have lost four starters on defense: Justin Simmons, Steven Daniels, Mehdi Abdesmad, and Connor Wujciak. All of them were drafted or signed by NFL teams. Simmons, the heart and soul of the defensive backs, led the way with a third-round selection by the Denver Broncos.
More importantly, they’ve said goodbye to Brown, the man who coined the phrase “Be a Dude,” who has gone to greener pastures (both in a figurative and monetary sense) at the University of Michigan. Brown will be as missed for his fire on the sidelines—not to mention his expletive-laden rants in practice—as for his hyperaggressive, 4-3 fronts with a press-zone in the defensive back. A Brown-led defense will blitz anywhere from 65 to 85 percent of the time. His philosophy is pressure, pressure, and more pressure. And, unlike other schools, which are peppered with four- and five-star players (like his new favorite toy, the highly versatile Jabrill Peppers), Brown has built BC’s strong defense largely with no-name prospects.
Surely any defense that has lost this much would be in disarray, worried about the future. So why is Steve Addazio so calm?
“The last time I checked, Steve Addazio didn’t go out and block anybody,” the loquacious head coach said at BC’s media day. “Don Brown did not tackle anybody and blitz anybody. It’s a player’s game and we have some great players and those players made some hellacious plays and with all due respect to all coaches myself included, it is a little overrated.”
Even with Brown gone, Addazio has no intention of changing the core ideology of a defense that has become emblematic of his program. All that will change are the faces on the sidelines. There’s a new cast of characters in town. Led by defensive coordinator Jim Reid, these coaches are ready to lead a hungry group of players who don’t give a s—t about rankings or haters. And these players are prepared to once again be the best in the nation.
In fact, they expect to be.
Blue-collar players with ivy-green minds.
Al Washington wanted that known loud and clear. That is exactly what he expects from a defensive lineman at BC. Routinely found in his black BC sweats and maroon sweatshirt, even in brutal August heat, the vibrant Washington loves to brag about his guys. A BC man through and through, Washington played defensive tackle on the Heights in the early 2000s before joining the coaching staff in 2012. During the last three years under Addazio, he worked with the running backs. But now he’s in charge of his old position, alongside Paul Pasqualoni, the most experienced man on the roster. The 67-year-old Pasqualoni has been everywhere across the coaching map: 17 years as a head coach at Syracuse and Connecticut, plus eight years as a position coach with four different NFL teams, most recently defensive line with the Houston Texans.
Together, they expect two things: grit and intelligence. With that, perfection will come.
Few exemplify those qualities quite like Gutapfel, the 6-foot-3, 288-pound senior tackle from Harrison, Ohio. A two-star recruit, Gutapfel wasn’t highly coveted out of high school—in fact, the offer he got from BC was the only one he would receive. For Sean Devine, the man who recruited him to the Heights, it was a blessing.
Devine, a former offensive line coach at BC who now is offensive coordinator at Delaware, saw Gutapfel as an all-time steal for a program in flux. Though Gutapfel wasn’t that fast, and slightly undersized for a middle-of-the-line defensive tackle, Devine was impressed with his flexibility and toughness, skills that came from wrestling—not football. Gutapfel holds Harrison High School’s single-season record for wins, and is top 10 in many categories. But when Devine saw him step out onto the gridiron, he knew this would be the man that would kill ACC offensive linemen for the next four years. Mostly because he was afraid of going up against him.
“When I recruit, I ask myself, ‘Would I want to block this guy?’” Devine said. “If the answer is yes, then I’ll pass. If the answer is no, then you better get him. Truman is that guy.”
The minut he stepped onto the field at BC, Gutapfel was out to prove he deserved Devine’s trust. He found his way onto the two-deep following Abdesmad’s injury in 2013. When Abdesmad tore a ligament in his left knee again in 2014, Gutapfel grabbed a starting spot for good. His name shot up the depth chart thanks to something his mother Yvonne, a 15-year member of the Cincinnati Police Department, taught him. You’re never given anything in life, you have to earn it.
It also helps that Gutapfel ran around the practice field with reckless abandon. Washington remembers how a younger Gutapfel would run around Shea Field tackling everything in sight. It earned him the nickname “War Daddy” from Brown, one of the only names bestowed by Brown on a player that didn’t include an F-bomb. Why War Daddy? Washington thinks it should be obvious.
“Because he’s a War Daddy, man!” Washington said. “When the game’s on the line, he’s going to give you everything he’s got. You want that guy. He prepares his ass off. I mean, his butt off. I can’t say ass.” Washington paused, wanting to establish the nicer side of Gutapfel, too. “That guy, you would trust him to date your sister, and feel good about it.“
But playing defensive line isn’t just about brute strength. Well, okay, that’s a big part of it. After all, BC’s 15 defensive linemen average 6-foot-3, 268 pounds. At its core, the job is to run your head into the blocks and eat up the offensive linemen. But Pasqualoni teaches that the defensive line is an art. And with that blue-collar toughness has to come ivy-green smarts. You must understand both your own defense and other teams’ offenses. And you have to show your smarts, both on and off the field. Gutapfel and his fellow senior, defensive end Kevin Kavalec, have done that, with regular appearances on the ACC’s All-Academic Team.
“Truman? That guy right there?” Washington said. “He’s a grinder. Intelligent as hell. One of the most intelligent defense linemen out there. Him and Kavalec, they’re geniuses.”
Perhaps the most intelligent man on the field is the team’s star defensive end, Harold Landry. He proved that last year against Florida State. Landry owned the Seminoles’ Brock Ruble, totaling 11 tackles, 4.5 for a loss, and a huge 14-yard sack of Everett Golson that also drew an intentional grounding penalty.
The performance earned him ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week. But even a perfectionist like Landry can’t take solace in that. Instead of focusing on the 50 good plays he made against FSU, Landry remembers the one play he didn’t make. The missed safety.
It’s a play he’ll never forget. Every day, he uses it to remind himself of what he can be.
“I don’t listen to all the positive things people say about me based on last year’s performance,” Landry said. “I think there’s a lot I can improve on, so I can be the greatest out there.”
Not everything is perfect on that defensive line, mind you. The Eagles lost two defensive tackles: Wujciak and Abdesmad. The replacements, however, are a core of young guys who have redshirted and taken the time to learn this defense. Defensive end Zach Allen has impressed many and has taken a lot of first-line snaps in scrimmages and practice. His speed will give Washington and Pasqualoni the freedom to create more dangerous blitz packages. Noa Merritt, Wyatt Ray, and Ray Smith are all candidates to line up against Gutapfel in run-stop schemes.
If that all works, the Eagles will create magic, just like they did in the Duke game. Down 9-0 in the third, BC’s defense had its back against the wall. Following a muffed punt by Sherman Alston, Duke had four downs and 1 yard to get a touchdown and put BC away for good. But the line wouldn’t be beat. Gutapfel, Kavalec, Landry, and Wujciak combined to shut down the Blue Devils four plays in a row. This season, Gutapfel believes that we shouldn’t expect anything less.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever had a year where everyone collectively understands the defense as well as they do this year,” Gutapfel said. “We set a precedent last year for greatness, and now we’re trying to replicate that and go past it.”
A deafening roar bursts out from the big brass band by the east end zone of Memorial Stadium. At once, 81,500 in the stands pivot their hungry eyes toward Howard’s Rock. In bright orange and purple they come racing down the hill, jumping and flapping their arms, cupping their hands over the holes on their helmets as the people shout: C-L-E-M-S-O-N.
Yep, they don’t call it Death Valley for nothing. But Matt Milano wasn’t fazed by the mystique surrounding Tiger Rag or the undefeated Clemson Tigers. In fact, it only charged him up more.
The Eagles had hung tough against the soon-to-be ACC Champions. Down only 17-7 nearing the half, Milano did what BC linebackers do in the Addazio-Brown system. He lined up on the strongside, appearing prepared to drop back. Off the snap, Milano then dashed in without hesitation. Landry headed to the outside off Clemson left tackle Mitch Hyatt, drawing him to the left. With Gutapfel headed straight on at the center, that left a gaping hole for Milano to attack. The only man in his way was Wayne Gallman.
As if that mattered.
Milano lowered his head and pushed Gallman back. While carrying the 6-foot, 210-pound running back in his right hand, Milano ensnared Deshaun Watson, the nation’s best quarterback, with his left. He knocked him on his backside, but not before Watson let go of the ball … right into the hands of Steven Daniels. The play directly led to a Mike Knoll field goal. A complete game-changer for a team that was the ultimate underdog. To that, Milano could only smile.
“I don’t know why,” Milano said, thinking back to the atmosphere at Clemson, “but that play always sticks with me.”
That brand of toughness and aggressiveness defines BC’s linebackers, and what makes them one of the most feared units in the nation. Right now, Milano—the man Addazio called “the best player on this defense”—is the most talked about. After spending two years mostly as a second-stringer, Milano burst onto the national scene in 2015. Given free range by Brown to eat up offensive linemen, Milano dashed for 60 tackles—17.5 for a loss—with 6.5 sacks, not to mention three passes defended and two forced fumbles.
His perfect hybrid brand of quick feet and smashmouth tackles comes from his days as a defensive back. Throughout his high school career at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Fla., Milano played safety. Many coaches, however, saw his 6-foot-1, 200 pound frame as more suited for the middle section of the defense, including the man who recruited him to BC, Jeff Comissiong, now Old Dominion’s defensive line coach. Making a position change wasn’t exactly something Milano looked forward to, but based on the results, he’s pretty happy the coaches knew best.
“I was so against it, because no one wants to move down to a bigger position,” Milano said about the weight gain that comes with moving to linebacker. Still, he had to laugh. “That being said, I’d say it’s worked out so far.”
While Milano was an unheralded player who switched positions out of high school, his partner-in-crime, Connor Strachan, was widely coveted. Strachan, a product of St. Sebastian’s in Needham, Mass., was a four-star recruit and the No. 1 overall player in Massachusetts in 2014. Strachan wasn’t expected to factor heavily into the defensive behemoth being built by Brown until his junior year. Once Daniels left, Strachan was to take over for him at middle linebacker, his natural position.
But you just can’t leave talent like that on the sidelines. So Strachan proved his worth starting from the weakside, something he said didn’t bother him.
“Once you know this defense, it’s easy to transition anywhere,” Strachan said. “The ability to be versatile and see plays from different positions is a big help.”
On the opposite side of Milano, Strachan compiled 75 tackles—12.5 for a loss—plus two sacks. That performance was good enough to earn him a spot on ESPN’s All-ACC First-Team for 2016. And, like Milano, he was a turnover machine, adding three fumble recoveries and two interceptions.
For Strachan, it was the aggression. Early in the second quarter, Wake quarterback John Wolford had to hurry to get off a third-down snap. That rushed throw found the hands of a defensive back, clanging off behind him into the air. Strachan was there with a diving grab right off the turf to give BC superb field position.
Milano, meanwhile, showed off his clutch gene to go with the toughness he believes is at the core of this linebacking group. With Wake needing only a single first down to run out the clock and send the Eagles home with an embarrassing loss, Milano was off to the races. But instead of rushing directly at Wolford, he waited for the handoff to freshman running back Matt Colburn. Once Gutapfel and Co. closed any gaps up the middle, Colburn bounced off his center … right into the expectant arms of Milano. He again lowered his head and used his right arm to punch the ball out and into the hands of Simmons.
The only question is how BC will settle that third spot next to Milano and Strachan. After all, Steven Daniels was an integral part of the Eagles’ defense, as proven by a seventh-round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft to the Washington Redskins.
Enter Jim Reid, the linebacker whisperer.
At first glance, with his khaki shorts pulled high and BC polo tucked in, Reid may remind you more of a kindly old grandfather at a buffet. But the new defensive coordinator and linebackers coach is as spry and energetic as anyone who has ever taken the field at Alumni Stadium.
Yes, that includes Don Brown.
He comes to the Heights with a strong resume: 17 years as a head coach at UMass, Richmond, and Virginia Military Institute; two years as a linebackers coach for the Miami Dolphins; and, of course, a stint at BC in 1994 as defensive coordinator. (For the record, that BC team coached by Reid went 7-4-1, allowing 14.1 points per game, seventh-best in the nation, and finished ranked No. 23 overall.)
Reid’s most recent job was a three-year stint as Iowa’s linebackers coach. In 2013, he helped three linebackers—Anthony Hitchens, James Morris, and Christian Kirksey—to superb careers at Iowa with 100 tackle seasons. Each now plays in the NFL. His most recent studs, Josey Jewell (a two-star recruit) and Cole Fisher, both amassed over 110 tackles.
Now, with Daniels gone, Reid has the opportunity to groom the next star tackler. He’s got a few choices. Senior Mike Strizak is an option—he has the most starting experience. The hard-hitting Ty Schwab also has strong potential. Or Reid could opt for a hybrid like Milano: former defensive back, Sharrieff Grice. No matter his decision, Reid has good options. Plus, it helps when you have a guy like him coaching.
“I’ll tell you what, they just fly around the field, and they love the game,” Reid said of his linebackers. “And when you love the game, and you take pride in the basic fundamentals of the game, it just allows you to make big plays …. It’s going to be fun to be around them.”
A defensive line built on intelligence and toughness. A linebacking corps reliant on speed and aggressiveness. Two of the most talked-about units in the nation. And they’re still not the best part of this defense.
That honor belongs to the final line of warriors: the defensive backs. Because, while the defensive line and linebackers each are breaking in a new starter, Anthony Campanile’s unit runs two-deep at an elite level.
It begins with the new leader of this defense, John Johnson: a man on the verge of one of BC’s all-time greatest seasons.
While Justin Simmons received all of the praise and glory, Johnson was quietly matching him step for step throughout the 2015 season. As a junior, he matured, moving from left cornerback to strong safety while still playing it at a high level. Not that this comes as any surprise to his high school head coach, Bryan Pierre. For many years, Pierre has molded men at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Md. He has seen a lot of great players come through his system, especially at defensive back. Two of those DBs—Leigh Bodden and Greg Toler—became successful NFL players.
Yet it’s still Johnson that Pierre has the highest praise for. He is floored by Johnson’s speed, how he can rush the passer in Brown’s system and still keep up with the ACC’s best wideouts. He admires the attention to detail and preparedness with which Johnson approaches every game. But most importantly, he appreciates having Johnson because it’s like having another coach out there on the field. Pierre attributes that to Johnson’s days on the hardcourt, when he led Northwestern as a swing guard who could handily start at both the 1 and 2.
“I think the sky is the limit for him,” Pierre said.
Johnson’s best quality, however, is as the ultimate ballhawk. Remember that Notre Dame game, with the five turnovers? One of them was Johnson’s (and he nearly had a second, when he forced a fumble by C.J. Prosise). With BC’s backs against the raucous crowd of leprechaun faithful in the bleachers of Fenway Park, Johnson took control. Quarterback Deshone Kizer lofted a pass on the run in the direction of tight end Alizé Jones. Johnson read the pattern perfectly, jumping in front of the pass in the end zone, directly preventing a score. And, as he got up, he pounded on his chest and pointed up at the Notre Dame student section, reminding everyone whose house Boston is.
Amazingly, it wasn’t the only time Johnson directly took away from a score. Against Virginia Tech, the Eagles’ defense was pinned on the end zone after a fumble caused by Taj-Amir Torres on a punt made for a quick and unexpected turnaround. As if tracking it with radar, Johnson found the poorly thrown pass by Michael Brewer and hauled it down in the end zone. His only regret?
“I’d like to get some yards after the catch this time around,” Johnson said.
For Johnson to be successful, he’ll need his team of defensive backs to join him. Under the direction of Anthony Campanile, a first-year DBs coach at BC with strong recruiting ties to New Jersey, this group appears to be as sure of a thing as any in the nation. There’s Kamrin Moore and Isaac Yiadom, two up-and-coming stars in the ACC. Both of their seasons were hampered by injuries—Yiadom, some bumps and bruises on his shoulder, and Moore, a broken leg—yet have returned to playing at a high level in summer camp. Will Harris will be lined up alongside Johnson at safety. Addazio believes Harris “has the highest ceiling of any DB we have had” at BC. And, even if one of them goes down, the Eagles have Torres, Gabriel McClary, Mehdi El Attrach, and Hamp Cheevers ready and waiting in the wings. Though he has only been here for a short time, Campanile knows that his men will single-handedly get a victory for BC at some point this season.
“I didn’t know where scholarships were allocated when I got here, but when I arrived, I can tell you what, they did a great job at choosing them,” Campanile said. “There’s a spoiler in this unit.”
Despite all of their accomplishments, the world is still against the Boston College defense. People doubt its success without Brown. Not a single defensive player appeared on the Associated Press’ Preseason All-ACC Team. SB Nation sees no chance of a repeat of the 2015 magic, at least not at that same level. ESPN predicts Florida State’s secondary and front seven will outpace BC’s, though BC returns nine of 11 starters and beat FSU in every defensive category.
Yet the Eagles are not fazed. Especially not Washington, the man who has been around the BC defense longer than anyone. When asked what qualities exude the unit, Washington didn’t hesitate.
“Aggressive, disciplined, together, unselfish, confident,” Washington said. “You can have tons of schemes. Schemes only work with the right guys in it. … We have really good players, but they’re also really good kids.”
Aggressive: the hard-hitting, quick-to-the-quarterback tackling machine that Brown built, and Addazio and Reid will carry on.
Disciplined: the intelligence you would expect from a group of students at BC, who also happen to dominate the ACC every Saturday.
Together: the leadership imparted on the younger guys by the team’s captains, Gutapfel and Johnson.
Unselfish: working not as individual star players, but as a unit that puts up numbers that no other team can match up to.
Confident: every word that comes out of the mouths of these players and coaches.
That’s not only what makes a Boston College defense. It’s what will make Boston College’s defense the best in the nation.
Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Senior Staff