That's the mantra for the defensive line this year, in the words of junior defensive end Nick Larkin. In one way - probably the way Larkin intended - "strong in the middle" is a testament to the two bulldozers (B.J. Raji and Ron Brace) the Eagles have playing tackle. In another way - probably the way most BC fans will take it - Larkin's words speak volumes about the key losses the team has suffered at the end position.
Let's look at the good first. Have you ever seen Raji in person? He looks like a storage freezer with arms and legs sticking out of it. Now, have you ever seen Brace in person? He's bigger. Brace has two inches and about 10 pounds on Raji. They combine for almost 700 pounds. With those two lining up side-by-side every game, how will any team be able to run up the middle? I'm still convinced it's physically impossible.
One concern, though, is the depth in the middle after it was learned that Justin Bell will likely miss the entire season for the second-straight year. Bell had a promising start to his collegiate career and the team would have loved to have him back this year, but he's nowhere near ready to return.
Having Bell would have been nice, but the Eagles should be fine with Jerry Willette and Keith Willis coming off the bench. Willis, a sophomore who accomplished a lot in his first year as an end, is probably good enough to start, but he'll need some time to adjust to his new role as a full-time tackle.
"I've grown a lot," Willis said, "and I think I'm a good fit in the middle. I put on a lot of weight. I'm at 273; I played last year at no more than 260. With the weight, I'll be more anchored."
Nothing like a little more weight on the line.
Another potential concern is Raji's health. He was taken off the field last Sunday during practice with an ankle injury. Apparently he's ok and will return, but if he is forced to miss time for some reason, the effect on the line would be catastrophic.
"Strong in the middle." What about the outside, Nick? As if the graduation of Mathias Kiwanuka weren't enough, expected-starter-at-defensive-end Jim Ramella is out, possibly for the year. The two losses could have a domino-effect on the rest of the line. Austin Giles will likely start, something the coaching staff didn't expect to happen this early (they liked him to come off the bench for at least a year or two). Without Kiwi, who consistently demanded double-teams last season, opposing offensive lines will be able to shift their attention to the monstrous middlemen.
But Larkin has another phrase that he uses, this one to combat doubters: So what? Teams are forced to deal with graduating superstars and injured starters all the time. That's both the beauty and the beast of college football: Every year you lose important players but every year new ones emerge. Despite the losses, Larkin and his fellow-linemen are teeming with confidence.
"Losing Kiwi is definitely a big loss for us," Larkin said, "…but Austin had a really good spring. He's a guy who has a really fast motor, he's not going to quit, and he's a big player. This happens all around the country. People get older, people leave, and someone else steps up. I'm not worried about it."
Larkin is the outspoken leader of the line this year and he knows it's his job to make sure that no one takes his "strong-in-the-middle" comment to mean the outside is weak. His performance on the field will determine that, but so will his ability to inspire confidence in his younger teammates, like Giles.
"I know Ron's ready, I know Willete's ready," Giles said, "I know anyone who's ready to step up at the tackle is ready. I'm positive I'm ready. It'll be fun; it'll be exciting to be around. We're going to surprise a lot of people."
Maybe that should be the new mantra.