How Will BC Replace Two Starters at Linebacker?

Boston College lost their three primary linebackers this offseason, watching nearly 2000 defensive snaps walk out the door. Who will replace Max Richardson, Isaiah McDuffie, and John Lamot in 2021?
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Going into the 2020 season, the linebacker position for the Boston College Eagles was considered a position of strength. Max Richardson returned for another year as the starting middle linebacker, Isaiah McDuffie was looking to capitalize off a scorching hot finish to his 2019 season, and John Lamot played significant snaps for the last few years; there were also several intriguing depth players like Joseph Sparacio and Vinny DePalma. 

During the season, however, Richardson and McDuffie struggled as the two starters, while Lamot rotated in and out. Most of those depth players either missed the majority of the season due to injury or simply couldn't beat out two players that are now on NFL rosters. Now, all three players are gone, with Richardson and McDuffie headed to the NFL. Both players started every game and led the team with over 700 snaps each.

While both players were quite productive during their careers on the Heights, most BC fans would agree that Richardson and McDuffie struggled at times during the 2020 season. As detailed in their pre-draft scouting reports, McDuffie frequently struggled to process what the offense was doing and played far too aggressively, while Richardson did not have the speed or athletic ability to make up for those mistakes. This allowed offenses, especially those with mobile quarterbacks, to exploit the middle of the field and create explosive plays if they got into the second level.

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During spring practices, the coaching staff discussed how the defense will change moving forward. Both Hafley and Lukabu indicated that the defensive scheme in 2020 was relatively vanilla due to the lack of live practice time during the previous spring and summer. They have also talked about how they plan to implement some more complicated designs this season. 

In a previous article, I discussed how BC could be moving towards a 4-2-5 defense in the 2021 season based on their personnel. In addition to taking advantage of new hybrid-style players on the roster (Jaiden Lars-Woodbey, Kam Arnold, Bryce Steele), I think this defense may help the linebackers by taking some of the pressure off them and putting it on the secondary. Additionally, Hafley has discussed how the defensive line has been beefing up during the offseason, which should help against the run as well.

Regardless of a new scheme or different player sizes, Hafley and the rest of the defensive staff need to find new bodies to man the linebacker spots. Therefore, here is a list of players that I expect to contribute significant snaps at the linebacker position this season, and a breakdown of what type of role they will fill.

Note: All snap counts and distributions are from Pro Football Focus.

Isaiah Graham-Mobley

The first hyphenate on this list, Graham-Mobley comes to Boston College after spending five years with the Temple Owls. He only played in ten total games during the previous two seasons due to season-ending injuries, but thanks to the extra-COVID year, he preserved his eligibility. IGM did not earn a starting job until 2020 and only started two games before his injury, but he played a lot for Temple in the previous two seasons. 

Based on his size profile, and those of his teammates, IGM projects to replace Max Richardson as the starting middle linebacker (MLB) or “Mike”. He may have lost a bit of his athleticism due to his injuries, but his experience and football intelligence should make up for it, especially when helping the other players in the box. Obviously, Graham-Mobley brings significant health concerns with him, but if he can stay healthy, he could help lock down the middle of the defense.

Joseph Sparacio

Sparacio was expected to be a major contributor in 2020 but missed the majority of the season due to injury. In 2019, Sparacio played in all 13 games and even made eight starts (521 snaps). He is quite undersized, coming in at 5’10” and 222 pounds. But he’s a hard hitter with an extremely hot motor. 

Sparacio will most likely play the role vacated by McDuffie, as the more rangy outside linebacker. I’d expect more rotation at the outside linebacker spot(s), as these players are used in more varied ways, requiring skillsets possessed by several players. Nevertheless, due to Sparacio’s experience and hustle, I think he’s the leading candidate to at least begin the season as one of the starting linebackers.

Vinny DePalma

These next two players contributed a total of five snaps combined this past season but could fill in as depth players this season if injury strikes. The first, Vinny DePalma, played a decent bit in 2019, appearing in every game with one start. Like the player preceding him, and the one following him on this list, DePalma was expected to contribute in 2020 but missed the entire season due to injury. Nearly 80% of his snaps in 2019 came in the box, so I project DePalma as a contender at the middle linebacker position, most likely backing up IGM. Due to Graham-Mobley’s injury history, DePalma could see significant playing time at the middle linebacker position.

Nick DeNucci

Nick DeNucci came to BC as a very highly-touted recruit, the number one linebacker from New Jersey. However, he has only played 24 defensive snaps combined over the last two seasons. Obviously, there have been some excellent players ahead of him on the depth chart. But if DeNucci is going to secure a spot atop the depth chart, this is the year to do it. Partially due to his size, and partially due to the open nature of the jobs, he could play any of the linebacker spots.

Jaiden Lars-Woodbey

Jaiden Lars-Woodbey is the first player on this list that I think will fill the hybrid safety/linebacker role for BC’s new 4-2-5 defense in 2021. JLW played a similar hybrid role for the Florida State Seminoles during the last few seasons. He is an elite athlete that can cover lots of ground and I believe he will be a dangerous weapon that can blow up outside run plays along with tracking mobile quarterbacks. Assuming he stays healthy, JLW should play a ton of snaps for the Eagles in 2021; however, I do not think the majority of these snaps will be from traditional linebacker alignments. 

Instead of standing five yards off the line of scrimmage somewhere between the offensive tackles, I think Hafley and Lukabu will find ways to move JLW around in order to both confuse the offense and take advantage of his skillset. Of his 274 defensive snaps in 2020, only 53 came from traditional box linebacker spots (according to Pro Football Focus), whereas 149 came as a box safety or slot cornerback; furthermore, every year at Florida State, JLW played fewer snaps at linebacker and more at safety or in the slot.

Kam Arnold

Kam Arnold is a true sophomore that is switching from safety to linebacker this season. Arnold played quite well when other players went down due to injury this season. Thus, it was somewhat surprising to hear that the coaching staff asked him to switch to linebacker this season and he willingly acquiesced. 

This position switch, along with the new players brought on the roster, is one of the key reasons why I think BC will be making a dramatic scheme change in 2021. Like JLW, I think Arnold will fit into the safety/linebacker hybrid role due to his background. His speed and athleticism make him an ideal fit as a run-and-chase type linebacker.

Bryce Steele

Steele is one of Hafley’s early recruiting gems and enrolled early to participate in spring practices. Due to getting an early start, I think he could be in line to earn early playing time and contribute throughout the season. Like JLW and Arnold, I think Steele fits very well into the safety-linebacker hybrid role. 

He’s an elite athlete that should be able to be used in a variety of ways. There are several players with more experience on the depth chart ahead of him. Ideally, I would hope that he can redshirt this year and play in less than four games. However, if injuries strike, Steele could find himself pressed into the line of duty.

Final Prediction and Conclusion

Ultimately, I expect Isaiah Graham-Mobley and Joseph Sparacio to begin the 2021 season as the starting linebackers, with Jaiden Lars-Woodbey starting as the nickel safety/linebacker hybrid. If either of the first two players goes down with an injury, I would expect Vinny DePalma and Nick DeNucci to be the next men up. 

I think Arnold and Steele will get some reps in Dime packages and maybe as traditional linebackers in the warm-up games against Colgate and UMass, but will not see the field as much once the ACC schedule begins; based on what the coaching staff has been saying, I’d expect Arnold to be the substitution for JLW if he gets hurt or just needs a rest. 

While there isn’t a ton of recent experience in this linebacker group, I do not expect it to be the liability that it was during the 2020 season. I think the overall increase in athletic ability, paired with a more dynamic scheme, should be one of the principal reasons for major improvements on the defensive side of the ball for the Eagles in 2021.