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Asked and Answered: The Offensive Line

Boston College's offensive line looked to be one of the strongest units in the conference. How have they fared thus far?

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: Can the Offensive Line Return to their 2019 Form?

Going into the 2020 season, even with a new coaching staff and offensive scheme, many expected the offensive line to be among Boston College’s greatest strengths. Zion Johnson, Alec Lindstrom, Ben Petrula, and Tyler Vrabel all returned for the Eagles, albeit to different positions. Johnson and Lindstrom were favorites among the NFL Draft community. But the unit struggled out of the gate. They took their lumps as pass protectors as they adjusted to their new positions. Eventually, they somewhat settled in which allowed the Eagles’ new aerial attack to flourish.

But the offensive line took a step back in the run game. This was where the changes in the scheme made themselves most apparent. Under Steve Adazzio, the offensive line relied on Man-Gap running schemes, with pulling guards and running downhill. Under the new staff, the offense used more Zone blocking principles, with the line aggressively blocking down and trying to open up multiple running lanes. In 2020, the Eagles averaged 101.7 yards per game and only 3.1 yards per carry; by comparison, in 2019, they averaged 254.2 per game and 5.2 yards per carry.

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Now, if you asked almost any BC fan if they wanted to go back to the Adazzio offense, I have to think most of them would say no. But the fact remains: BC needed to run the better for a number of reasons. One, it would help them in the red zone. The Eagles had to settle for field goals too many times because they couldn’t consistently run the ball. Two, it would help preserve Phil Jurkovec. Obviously, that didn’t matter this year. But in theory, running the ball protects the quarterback by not asking him to drop back and pass so much. Finally, it helps extend drives and give the defense rest. The BC offense stalled too many times because they couldn’t run the ball. This led to the defense being forced back onto the field, leading to giving up explosive plays.

Entering the 2021 season, hopes were high again. Several players were returning to their natural positions (Vrabel to left tackle, Johnson to left guard, and Petrula to right tackle). Additionally, all the players had a full, normal offseason with training and practice not under the shadow of COVID. But the season did not get off to the best start. The Eagles struggled to run the ball against Colgate, an FCS opponent. They found some success against UMass but were anemic against Temple. Those three opponents are all below average non-conference opponents, which the vaunted BC offensive line should have dominated.

However, against Missouri, the O-line finally found their footing. In hindsight, it’s clear that Missouri’s run defense is awful; they gave up 458 yards on the ground to Tennessee last week. Nevertheless, the BC offensive line dominated the point of attack for the vast majority of the game against an SEC opponent. They cleared out big holes for all the running backs, especially Pat Garwo, to run through. Perhaps even more importantly, they displayed powerful surges on key downs when BC desperately needed a few yards. They were also excellent in pass protection; most of the pressures or sacks they gave up were because Dennis Grosel held onto the ball too long.

Against Clemson, one could argue that the line took a step back. The run game worked pretty well but BC had to abandon it for most of the game, especially on later drives when they needed to score quickly. Conversely, the pass protection for Grosel was inconsistent. Again, part of the blame lies with Grosel, due to him freezing in the pocket and not getting rid of the football. However, there were several false starts and pre-snap penalties that derailed the offense. Additionally, the left tackles, Tyler Vrabel and Jack Conley, struggled to deal with Clemson’s talented defensive ends.

Moving forward and looking beyond the bye week, Boston College will not face a defense like Clemson’s for the rest of the season. On average for the first five games, the offensive line performed quite well. They were excellent pass protectors and found their stride in the run game to open up the offense. If the coaching staff can use the bye week to tweak the offense and make it more compatible with Dennis Grosel’s skillset, the offensive line should look even better for the rest of the season.

Answered: It took a few weeks but yes.