As with any team in any season, Boston College entered the 2021 season facing numerous questions. Luckily, they brought back all but four starters entering Week 1. That, along with the same coaching staff and a full offseason of practice and training, put the Eagles in a great position to begin the season.
With the Eagles on a bye week after five games, now is a good time to revisit those questions. BC has played two home games and three road games along with one conference game. Obviously, the injury to Phil Jurkovec put a damper on the season. But it’s still appropriate to take stock of where the Eagles stand. In this exercise, I will pose a question from the preseason surrounding Boston College football, discuss if and how it’s been answered, then deliver a verdict.
Asked: Who will replace Max Richardson and Isaiah McDuffie? Can they be replaced?
The linebacker position was a bit confusing for BC in 2020. On one hand, the Eagles brought back three starters with plenty of experience. Two of those three, Max Richardson and Isaiah McDuffie, played extensively. But each player had their limitations; where Richardson lacked athleticism and speed, McDuffie lacked patience and played too aggressively. These two sets of flaws combined and mutated to make one larger one. Therefore, with Richardson and McDuffie leaving for the NFL, the dearth of experience at linebacker was bittersweet.
The Eagles brought back a few players with experience. Vinny DePalma and Joseph Sparacio both played extensively in 2019 but missed most of the 2020 season due to injuries. Jeff Hafley and Tem Lukabu also added some bodies via multiple methods; Isaiah Graham-Mobley joined the team via the transfer portal, Kam Arnold converted from safety to linebacker, and true freshman Bryce Steele enrolled early. But through spring and summer camp, questions remained about the linebacking corps. Even with all their flaws, Richardson and McDuffie were highly productive.
To being the season, Hafley elected to go with experience, giving IGM and DePalma the initial starting roles. However, through five games, there has been a change. Kam Arnold has replaced DePalma as the “outside” linebacker. As they did in 2020, the Eagles primarily play defense in the Nickel, with four defensive linemen, two linebackers, and five defensive backs. IGM has taken over Max Richardson’s role swimmingly at middle linebacker; he’s been excellent as a run-stopper and coverage defender, along with providing leadership in the middle of the defense. There’s an argument to be made that he’s the best BC linebacker since Matt Milano, who played a very different role.
Arnold could not technically begin the year as a starter due to a lingering targeting suspension from last season. But his playing time has increased with every game and his athleticism has significantly helped the defense. Arnold has a lot more flexibility/versatility than IGM in terms of his alignments and usage. His background as a safety allows him to play in the slot/overhang area and cover running backs and tight ends if they align in the slot.
It’s early in the season and BC has many good opponents ahead of them. But these linebackers played well against Clemson and should continue to get even better with more experience. Moving forward, I would like to see the linebackers make more splash plays, creating havoc in the backfield and turnovers in coverage. Obviously, this is somewhat dependent on how Hafley and Lukabu want them to fit into their defensive schemes. But both players have shown that they are capable, versatile threats.
Answered: Isaiah Graham-Mobley and Kam Arnold, and they’re even better than expected.