Tem Lukabu and Jeff Hafley had a herculean task ahead of them in 2020, trying to turn around a defense that finished near the bottom in the country in multiple statistics. And while they weren't perfect, the feeling after the season was that the unit was heading in the right direction. They jumped over 40 spots in points allowed per game, drastically improved in opponent third down conversions, and were strong in the turnover department.
But there is still room for massive improvement. What are some of the biggest questions at each position? We explore.
Defensive Ends: Can they get pressure on the quarterback?
The returning defensive ends (Shittah Sillah, Marcus Valdez, and Brandon Barlow) only combined for six sacks between them in '20. Hafley and Lukabu have stressed the need to get after the quarterback for their defense to be effective. Someone in this group is going to need to step up, especially with sack leader Max Roberts heading to the NFL. And if it isn't one of these three, could it be a freshman or underclassman who hasn't had a crack at it? Someone like Neto Okpala or Donovan Ezeiraku? Regardless, the ends need to improve in the pass rush.
Defensive Tackle: Who Starts Next To Boozie?
Luc Bequette was primarily the other defensive tackle last season lining up opposite Chibueze Onwuka, a transfer from Buffalo. But he is gone, entering the transfer portal. Onwuka is back, and has bulked up, close to 300 pounds according to the staff. But who will take that other spot? There are plenty of options whether it is senior TJ Rayam, who has shown flashes over the years, Cam Horsley who has loads of potential and explosiveness, or Khris Banks a transfer from Temple. This will certainly be a battle to watch for during summer camp.
Linebackers: Who Replaces Isaiah McDuffie and Max Richardson's Productivity?
This has to be the biggest question remaining on the defense. It is not easy to just replaced 200+ tackles with new names, but that is exactly what Lukabu and Hafley are going to need to do. Fortunately for the staff there are lots of options to play with. Whether it's internal candidates like Hugh Davis, Vinny DePalma, Joseph Sparacio, or Nick DeNucci, a safety moved over to LB in Kam Arnold, freshmen like Bryce Steele, or a transfer like Isaiah Graham Mobley, the Eagles are going to need to figure out their linebacking situation. There is quite a bit of talent in that group, and there is no reason that they can't fit in and do what
Cornerbacks: Can this group become great?
When you look at the defense, in terms of talent, the cornerbacks stand out as the group that could have the highest upside. And they have certainly been good....but they haven't been great. With a returning quartet of Josh DeBerry, Elijah Jones, Brandon Sebastian and Jason Maitre, the Eagles corners have talent, swagger and veteran leadership to take it to the next level, which we haven't seen yet. Can Jeff Hafley and Aazaar Abdul Rahim take this group to the next level? Can they take targets out of the game with superior coverage and technique? We haven't seen it yet, but it could happen.
Safeties: Who is the odd man out?
It looks like Boston College will play a 4-2-5 defense in 2021, which will allow for three safeties to play. They will have the standard free safety, strong safety and hybrid linebacker/safety. This gives BC the flexibility to move guys around, and utilize speed traditional defenses don't typically have. BC is bringing in four safeties with significant experience (Mike Palmer, Deon Jones, Jaiden Lars Woodbey and Jahmin Muse). Only three of them can technically be "starters" unless Hafley makes Woodbey a linebacker. That leaves one out. Who will that be? Most likely that will be Palmer given what the defense is trying to do with speed. But it still remains a question and something to watch.