Defensive Analysis: O'Brien's Philosophy

Pack Pride takes a closer look at what Tom O'Brien likes defensively and some of his best players on that side of the ball.

  • Offensive Analysis: O'Brien's Philosophy

    Tom O'Brien looks for athleticism and toughness in his defensive players. BC has been regarded as one of the hardest-hitting defensive teams around and are always disciplined on that side of the ball. What you see is what you get... a physical, straightforward defense that will play hard to the whistle and always trying to create turnovers.

    Long-time defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani doesn't try to fool offenses too much. He employs a base 4-3 alignment with little blitzing and a lot of zone coverage, very different from recent NC State defenses.

    If the matchups are beneficial to BC, Spaziani may press cover and blitz some with his linebackers, but usually BC would make the opposing offenses attempt to drive the length of the field without making a mistake. This defensive philosophy generally allowed yardage but also would create more turnovers.

    What has worked for opposing offenses? Teams tend to try and work the underneath routes with crossing patterns, drags and dump passes to the backs... taking advantage of deep zone drops and gaps between the line and linebackers.

    Here is a closer look at what O'Brien's staff values on the defensive side of the ball, along with a glimpse at several standouts who shined under them at Boston College.


    As with the offensive line, size and athleticism are the necessary traits. On the edges, expect O'Brien's teams to have tall, rangy, and agile defensive ends with short, strong, and aggressive defensive tackles plugging the middle of the trenches.
    Mathias Kiwanuka

    The defensive line is the most important unit defensively under O'Brien. Look for an aggressive four-man pass rush anchored by pass rushing defensive ends and tackles that want to apply pressure while also taking up blockers to free up linebackers in run support.

    Key Players
    Mathias Kiwanuka:
    Probably the most heralded player under O'Brien at Boston College, Kiwanuka arrived an unheralded recruit and left a legend.

    Kiwanuka finished his BC football career with 245 career tackles (157 solos), a school-record 37.5 quarterback sacks, 65.5 tackles for loss, 13 pass breakups, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and three interceptions in 49 games over four seasons. A two-time All-American and Big East Defensive Player of the Year, the 6-foot-6 defensive end was one of the most feared pass rushers in college football.

    Kiwanuka plays in the NFL for the New York Giants who selected him 32nd overall in the first round of the 2006 NFL draft following a trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He is expected to be the future replacement for Michael Strahan. He could have went pro after his junior season but decided to return to Boston College.

    Chris Hovan

    Chris Hovan: Hovan had a brilliant career at Boston College, as he was named All-American by the American Football Coaches Association following his senior season. A semifinalist for the Lombardi Award, the run-stuffing defensive tackle was the first player in Boston College history to be named All-Big East three times.

    Hovan started 43 of the 45 games he played in college, including the final 33 over his last three seasons. He finished his college career with 20.5 sacks and 43 tackles for loss.

    He was drafted with the No. 25 overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft by the Minnesota Vikings. Hovan spent five productive seasons with the Vikings before joining the Tampa Bay Bucs. He has started 29 straight games for Tampa Bay and his ability to disrupt in the trenches was a major reason the Bucs led the league in defense in 2005.

    Antonio Garay: A two-sport star at Boston College, Garay finished his career with 162 tackles including 12 sacks and 24 tackles for a loss with five pass breakups.

    The defensive tackle was also a two-time All-American wrestler at Boston College, including a fourth-place finish in the heavyweight class at the 2000 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.

    He was originally selected with the 22nd pick of the sixth round of the 2003 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. Currently Garay suits up for the Chicago Bears.

    B.J. Raji
    Tim Bulman: Another talented defensive tackle to play under O'Brien at Boston College, Bulman was a second-team All-Conference selection as a senior after posting 52 tackles, 16.4 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks.

    Hailing from Milton, MA, the 6-foot-4, 283 pound Bulman went undrafted in the 2005 NFL Draft. However, he was signed by the Arizona Cardinals as an undrafted free agent and made the team. He played in seven games as a rookie, recording four tackles. Currently Bulman is a reserve defensive tackle for the Houston Texans.

    B.J. Raji: Raji is a the top returning player on BC's defensive line, and he has posted 60 tackles (34 solos), 14.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and four pass breakups. He has started 23 of the last 24 games.

    Raji earned second team All-ACC honors this past season, and he is poised to have a great senior yaer.

    At 6-foot-1 and 340 pounds, Raji's job is the clog the middle of the trenches and disrupt things. He is expected to be one of the defensive tackles in the country in 2007.


    Linebackers tend to be the playmakers for O'Brien, and he has had his fair share at Boston College.

    His linebackers have varied in size, but they all share the same qualities -- speed, athleticism, and toughness.

    Because BC's defensive tackles do such a good job of generating pressure and taking up blockers, the Eagle linebackers have been able to post stellar numbers.

    Ricky Brown
    What does O'Brien look for most in linebackers? Athleticism and versatility.

    Of most of the linebackers who starred under him, several ended up at linebacker after playing other skill positions on the prep level. Brian Toal and Vinny Ciurciu starred at fullback. Jolonn Dunbar was originally recruited as a halfback by BC after accumulating more than 5,000 yards on the ground in high school. Tyronne Pruitt was a star tailback at Brockton (Mass.) High and a standout member of the track team. Ray Henderson starred on the prep level as a high-major quarterback, and Ricky Brown had several offers to play defensive back in college.

    Key Players
    Vinny Ciurciu:
    Ciurciu started his career as a fullback at Clemson, but transferred to Boston College where he developed into a star linebacker.

    Ciurciu ranked second on the Eagles with 102 tackles in addition to collecting one interception, two forced fumbles and five passes defensed as a senior in 2002. He compiled a team-high 87 tackles and two interceptions as a junior in 2001.

    Ciurciu went undrafted in 2003 but inked with the Carolina Panthers as a free agent. He made the Panthers and has spent four seasons with the NFL team, serving mainly as a reserve linebacker and special teams standout. He totaled a career-high 37 tackles in 2004, making four starts.

    Vinny Ciurciu
    Ricky Brown: Brown arrived at BC as a heralded defensive back and left as one of the toughest linebackers to play for O'Brien. He finished his career with 184 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries.

    Brown won the the 2005 Scanlan Award (along with Patrick Ross), the highest honor bestowed upon a BC football player that recognizes accomplishments on the field, in the classroom and in the community.

    He was signed by the Oakland Raiders and has played in 10 games, recording seven tackles.

    Ray Henderson: Henderson graduated as one of the most productive linebackers in school history. Checking in at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds but athletic enough to play all three linebacker positions, Henderson finished his career with 263 tackles and an astounding nine interceptions. He started the final 37 games of his college career.

    Henderson earned 2004 All-Big East second-team honors during his junior year. Playing middle linebacker, he totaled 75 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and a team-high six interceptions.

    Henderson didn't arrive at BC as a linebacker. In fact, he came in as one of the top prep quarterbacks in New Jersey, passing for 1,975 yards and 24 touchdowns as a senior quarterback at Cresskill High School.

    Brian Toal
    Brian Toal: One of the most heralded players to ink with the Boston College program, Toal chose BC over Miami, Penn State, Virginia Tech and others after a standout prep career at Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey.

    Toal came in and made an impact right away, playing in all 12 games as a true freshman. He started the final nine as he totaled 77 tackles and 4.5 tackles for a loss to earn 2004 Big East Rookie of the Year honors.

    Toal has battled injuries over the past two seasons, but did total 102 tackles, 4.5 sacks and two interceptions.

    A very athletic and aggressive player, Toal also plays fullback for Boston College. He has scored six offensive touchdowns in his career.

    At 6-foot and 232 pounds, Toal has outstanding quickness and athleticism for the position. Should he shake the injury problems in 2007, he will project as a very high draft pick.

    Jolonn Dunbar: Dunbar might be the most athletic linebacker in the ACC. He arrived at BC as a tailback, but moved to linebacker during his redshirt season in 2003.

    Elected a captain as a junior, he led the team with 78 tackles. His breakout game came against Maryland, when he tied an NCAA Division 1-A record after returning two fumble recoveries for touchdowns (14 and 38 yards). Dunbar also made 14 tackles against the Terrapins and was named National Defensive Player of the Week and ACC Defensive Line Player of the Week for his effort.

    For his career he's tallied 165 career tackles, including 101 solo stops and 11.0 career tackles for loss. Dunbar and Toal might be the top 1-2 punch at linebacker in the ACC in 2007.


    As mentioned earlier, Boston College likes to play zone in the secondary with some man coverage mixed in. Safeties generally play two-deep, but often times they want to play with a strong safety (Jamie Silva, Pedro Cirino, etc...) close to the box in run support.

    Will Blackmon
    Speed is a major emphasis in recruiting defensive backs, as is having terrific ball skills. Most of BC's best defensive backs have been players who had the natural instincts to play the position.

    To play defensive back under O'Brien, you must be willing to mix it up and be physical. His defensive backs play with a chip on their shoulders and are just as physical as the front seven.

    Key Players
    Will Blackmon:
    Blackmon is arguably the best athlete to play football at Boston College, and most knew how special he was when he arrived as a prep All-American out of Rhode Island.

    Blackman did it all, starring as a returner, cornerback, and even played wide receiver as a senior. He finished his BC football career at the top of the school's record books in numerous categories; first in career kickoff returns (110), first in single-season kickoff returns (36 in 2003), first in career kickoff return yards (2,700), first in single-season kickoff return yards (922 in 2003), tied for fourth in career punt returns (49), fourth in career punt return yards (511), fifth in single-season punt return yards (261 in 2004), seventh in single-season receptions (51 in 2005), ninth in single-season receiving yards (763 in 2005).

    Blackmon was named a All-Big East player in 2004 as a cornerback, and in his three years at the position he picked off seven passes and tallied 139 tackles.

    He was drafted in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL Draft (115th pick overall) by Green Bay and is currently a reserve cornerback for the Packers.

    Lenny Walls
    Lenny Walls: One of the few junior college players to attend BC under O'Brien, Walls spent two seasons at Boston College, where he played two years and recorded 84 tackles (64 solo), including four sacks, as well as nine interceptions, 17 pass breakups and one touchdown on an interception return.

    An outstanding athlete, Walls is a physical freak who stood out to a lot of NFL teams. At 6-foot-4, he is currently the tallest cornerback in the National Football League. Walls spent four seasons with the Denver Broncos, totaling 100 tackles, 20 pass breakups and an interception. He inked with Kansas City this past offseason and has played in all 13 games for the Chiefs.

    Pedro Cirino: Cirino is one of the all-time fan favorites at Boston College. A huge hitter at safety, Cirino earned All-Big East honors his final three seasons.

    He finished his career with 331 career tackles.

    Jamie Silva: After redshirting in 2003, Silva played in all 12 games as a redshirt freshman, starting the first three contests and finishing with 43 tackles. He really burst on the scene in 2005. Playing all 12 games, Silva started seven at rover, recording a team-leading 87 tackles (60 solos), one quarterback sack, 4.5 tackles for loss, two pass breakups and one interception.

    His presence as a playmaker in the secondary and a sure-tackler around the line of scrimmage allowed Boston College to do a lot of different things scheme-wise defensively. He was tabbed an honorable mention All-ACC pick, and following the departure of Mathias Kiwanuka he is considered the leader of BC's defense.

    DeJuan Tribble

    Silva has totaled 184 career tackles, 11 tackles for loss, six interceptions, three fumble recoveries, and two sacks.

    DeJuan Tribble: Tribble is a shutdown corner and return specialist who started 26 games in his first three seasons. He finished the 2006 season with 132 career tackles (109 solos), seven tackles for loss, 14 pass breakups, 11 interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

    In fact, it was Tribble's emergence prior to 2005 that allowed the BC coaches to move Will Blackmon over to wide receiver. He was named an second team All-ACC player following the 2006 season and will be the leader of BC's defense in 2007.

    At 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds he doesn't possess ideal size, but Tribble is very physical, explosive, has great ball skills, and very good recovery speed. He projects as a future NFL draft pick.

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