Over the next few weeks, we'll be chatting with each ACC football coach to go over the highs and lows of 2017 and take a look at what's in store for spring practice and the season ahead.
First up, Boston College coach Steve Addazio, whose Eagles finished as one of the hottest teams in the league and with an offense that looks poised for big things in 2018.
The offensive breakout in the second half of the year surprised a lot of people. Did you see this coming?
Addazio: We felt great about where we were in training camp, from last year's bowl game. We were finally getting to what I felt was the right fit for us here. The bowl prep last year was an advantage. We felt pretty damn good. We were playing with a young quarterback and a young tailback, and there would be growing pains. We knew that. But then, really, what happened was: Early, we lost Jon Baker, our starting center. He really tied everything together -- made all the calls, the protections. He was a security blanket. When we lost him, it really affected us dramatically. We had to play a true freshman, who'd never played center in his life. We started him against Wake Forest. That was hard for anybody. The kid went on to have a great year, but it had more of an effect on a young quarterback than anyone, including us, expected. It stymied our growth a little, and it took us a couple, three games to get our sea legs back.
In the process, what happened was we lost Connor Strachan, Max Richardson -- we went on this injury routine that didn't stop. When we finally stabilized our offense, we lost the heart of our defense. We lost Harold [Landry], essentially for the rest of the year. Then we got against Notre Dame, and the next thing you know, we're just kind of bolo punched. But here's what you could see. We knew we'd have a really good football team, we just had to hang in there for a little bit while guys kind of reset.
Addazio: Anthony really started really coming on. A.J. started really coming on. Ben Petrula started really coming on. Little by little, it started to really click against Louisville. And you said, "We're going to be alright here." We felt great about it. I couldn't be more excited about where we're going right now. At the end of the year, we were down 10 starters. But here's the good news: Our team improved. And we have talent. We've got to get Anthony healthy. We have two backs that are the real deal. We've got two tight ends who can play anywhere in the country. We've got speed at wide receiver. Zach Allen is coming back with Wyatt Ray and Ray Smith, and we'll have like six linebackers that could start for anybody. We've got two safeties that are as good as there are in college football. We've got Hamp Cheevers at corner who came in for Kam [Moore]. We've got super-talented young guys. We feel like we've got a real team coming back.
That you can rattle off guys all over the depth chart is a big change from years past where there were maybe a lot more strengths and weaknesses.
Addazio: We've got a balanced team. We've got eight linemen that will come back with at least 10 starts under their belt. That's a lot now. I'm pretty optimistic. I'm not naive. I know it's a small margin of error. But we've got talent, we've got experience, and we've got some confidence, and the chemistry on this team, I think, is special.
You mentioned Anthony's injury. Is there a concern, especially for a young guy, that it's a big setback?
Addazio: Nothing is going to derail him in terms of his ability and confidence. He's just got to rehab and go through the process of getting back. It's solely time and effort and rehab. I don't think anybody is worrying about what's going to happen. He's going to be strong, and he'll be back. It may take the first couple games to get back in the saddle. But if you're a real baller, he'll shake it all off.
When I talked to A.J. after the season, he said over and over how he thought there were so many more ways for him to improve. That's sort of crazy for a guy who had a year like he did. What's the ceiling for him?
Addazio: He kept growing all year, and he's still growing. Where do I think he can be? If he stays healthy, I think he can win the Heisman Trophy here at Boston College. He's humble and he's smart and he knows he has a ways to go. He's pretty damn good, but that speaks to where he can be. If he's healthy, he's a unique player. A.J.'s going to be a beast.
Maybe more than just talent, one thing that really changed last year was style. You guys ranked 15th in plays per game last year after being 110th the year before. What happened?
Addazio: One of the interesting things is, with our tempo, the plays we ran per game, we were in the top 15, and some of those games, we slowed down because we were winning. We changed who we are, restructured who we are, and I think we're on to something special right now. We have the ability to give you a spread or a pro-style offense with one grouping, with great, fast tempo. I think we're on the cutting edge of something good right now.