The Eagles spent the spring trying to decide who would start at two key positions -- quarterback and tailback.
Also up in the air is the tailback position after the school's all-time leading rusher, Derrick Knight, departed after last season. Sophomore Jeff Ross had 72 yards in the spring game, but he's part of a large contingent of players fighting to earn playing time at the position.
The Eagles will return 34 letter winners and 11 starters from last year's 8-5 squad that played in a school-record fifth straight bowl game, but BC is trying to fill some major holes on the offensive line, with only juniors Pat Ross and Jeremy Trueblood returning on the front five.
There's experience on the defensive side of the ball, but there are also open spots following graduations, especially on the interior of the line and at the outside linebacking spots. Redshirt freshman linebacker Jolonn Dunbar could earn himself quite a bit of time in 2004 following his 15-tackle performance in the spring game.
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: DL Mathias Kiwanuka, first-team All-American by Athlon, second-team by Lindy's; third-team by Street & Smith's.
KEY GAME: Every year, the Boston College-Notre Dame contest has special significance for both sides thanks to the history of the rivalry. Last season, the Eagles escaped with a 27-25 victory, but this year's contest, on Oct. 23, is in South Bend and the result could really set the tone for the rest of the season for the Eagles.
THE MINDSET: BC had a lot of momentum at the end of the season, going 3-0 after Paul Peterson took over at quarterback, including a 35-21 victory over Colorado State in the Diamond Walnut San Francisco Bowl. The Eagles scored at least 34 points in each of the three contests Peterson started, and after a school-record five straight bowl appearances, the attitude around BC is one of reloading rather than rebuilding. All the better to build momentum for the move to the ACC next season.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Derrick Knight put his name in the BC record books with 3,725 rushing yards through his career. But Knight is now gone, leaving coach Tom O'Brien with a major hole to fill on offense. Sophomore Jeff Ross rushed for 72 yards in the spring game, but there will be plenty of players trying their best to get a shot at Knight's empty spot in the backfield.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I believe we had an excellent spring practice. Out of the 15 practices, I think we only had one bad day, so I think we accomplished a lot. Spring practice is still, for me, designed to make individuals the best they can be. I'm not as concerned with the X's and O's, even though that becomes part of spring practice. The most important part is that we improve as individuals." -- Head coach Tom O'Brien on his focus in spring practice.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: Assuming he keeps the starting job come fall, Paul Peterson is certainly a player to watch on offense. He threw six of his 10 touchdowns last season after becoming the starter late in the year. Senior wide receiver Grant Adams looks like he's ready to break out in his final year with the Eagles.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: Junior defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka led the Big East in sacks a year ago, so it will be interesting to see how he responds to the inevitable extra attention he'll see in 2004. Another junior, cornerback Will Blackmon, continues to improve each year, and he should be a standout for the Eagles this season.
MOVING VAN: DB Nathanael Hasselbeck is transferring to Division I-AA Massachusetts. Hasselbeck had announced he was leaving BC in late May and one month later he decided to play for the Minutemen. Because he is going to a I-AA program, he will be able to play immediately. He is the brother of former BC quarterbacks Matt and Tim Hasselbeck. "He has great hands. He's an outstanding athlete," Umass coach Don Brown told the Boston Globe. "He made significant contributions to a great program and we're happy to have him."
INJURY IMPACT: The Eagles are extremely relieved to have long snapper Francois Brochu back in the fold after he missed all of 2003 with a wrist injury. The kicking game definitely suffered with Brochu out. The punting game, however, could suffer with the loss of starting punter Jeff Gomulinski, who was kicked off the team in spring. Gomulinski averaged 39.8 yards last season. Punting duties likely fall to Johnny Ayers, a true freshman.
CONNECTICUT INSIDE SLANT
With this season's move to the Big East will come more visibility than ever for the UConn program ... which means quarterback Dan Orlovsky finally will get the attention he deserves.
Now, with national televised games on the horizon and the real possibility for a bowl game -- the Huskies were 9-3 last season and couldn't get shoehorned into the postseason -- a lot more college football fans are going to know the name of Dan Orlovsky.
He figures to be top quarterback in the Big East. He is rated the 11th-best quarterback in the country by Lindy's magazine.
"He had a good spring," coach Randy Edsall said of his senior quarterback. "He's got all the things that we need and I wouldn't trade him for anyone else in college football."
Orlovsky was selected one of three team captains in the spring, along with senior linebacker Alfred Fincher and senior offensive tackle Ryan Krug. He is line for a huge senior season, and is being mentioned as one of the top quarterback prospects for the 2005 NFL draft.
Of course, the pressure will be much greater this season, too.
"That's the last thing I want is for him to think he's got to go out and do more," UConn coach Randy Edsall told the Hartford Courant.
"Dan just needs to go out and play within the system and the game plan. If he does that, he's going to be fine. If he does that, the numbers will be what they are."
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: While many of the preseason magazines believe QB Dan Orlovsky is solid, the NFL scouts think he may be the best prospect at the position in the nation. The National Scouting Combine believes Orlovsky would go in the second round. No quarterback is rated higher. At 6-5 and 235 pounds, Orlvsky has ideal size. He also threw for 3,485 yards and 33 touchdowns a year ago. "I can't look at that stuff because subconsciously it plays a part in your mind," Orlovsky told the Hartford Courant. "I'll be worried about it next year at this time. Now it's not a big deal."
KEY GAME: UConn has Sept. 17 circled on its calendar for a couple of reasons. Not only will the Huskies be playing their first Big East conference game -- at Boston College on a Friday night -- it will mark their debut on national television. ESPN2 will televise the game from Alumni Stadium, as everyone will learn if UConn has the stuff to compete in the Big East this season.
THE MINDSET: The Huskies should be on anybody's short list of teams on the rise. They debuted a new stadium last season, and then they were able to join the Big East a year ahead of schedule, a move that gives them a higher national profile than ever. With a talented senior quarterback, UConn is eager to hit the ground running and compete for the conference title in a watered-down league (and before Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida arrive in 2005).
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Defensive end Uyi Osunde had 10 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss last season. His presence helped free Tyler King for nine sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss, and now King, the lone returning starter on the defensive line, will have to be a leader of the defense. He missed part of the spring due to injury, but it was nothing serious.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I've already told some guys if we're not the No. 1 offense in the country, we're not getting it done. We can't rest on last year or however many starters we have coming back." -- QB Dan Orlovsky in the Hartford Courant.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: QB Dan Orlovsky -- He is coming off a season in which he set several school records, including passing yards (3,485), completions (279), attempts (475) and TD passes (33). He had five 300-yard passing games last season, and two more in which he threw for 299. He has already been selected for the all-star East-West Shrine Game in January. WR Keron Henry -- He is the leading returning receiver with 39 catches last season for 662 yards and four touchdowns. With Shaun Feldeisen and O'Neil Wilson gone, Henry will have a key role. The tailbacks -- Cornell Brockington and Chris Bellamy filled in for injured Terry Caulley last season, and the running game didn't miss a beat. But sophomore Matt Lawrence was the most improved player in the spring, and joins the mix, too. "I can feel comfortable with any of those three guys in the game, at any point and time in the game," coach Randy Edsall said.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: LB Maurice Lloyd -- He is one of three returning starting linebackers for the Huskies. He led the team last season with 121 tackles, including 14.5 for loss. DE Tyler King -- He's the pass rusher all elite teams need to have. CB Justin Perkins -- The senior intercepted six passes last season and broke up 15 others.
INJURY IMPACT: The biggest question is the return of RB Terry Caulley, who missed most of last season after suffering a torn ACL on Sept. 27 against Virginia Tech. His status won't be fully known until August. He is a junior, but does have a redshirt year available. Given the crowded situation in the UConn backfield, that could be a good way to go if he is not back to 100 percent during fall camp.
PITTSBURGH INSIDE SLANT
The Panthers were hoping spring practice would bring a decisive winner in the battle for the starting quarterback position. It didn't.
Unfortunately for coach Walt Harris, that's one of many positions that are open for new starters in 2004, as Pittsburgh could have as many as eight new starters on offense and four to six new starters on the defensive side of the ball. Also, Pitt will have competition for the placekicking job as well as a new punter for the coming season.
One of the biggest problem areas is the offensive line, which was decimated by injuries in spring practice, making it hard to get a good look at either quarterback because they were scrambling so much. Harris knows that he needs the front five to get healthier -- and better -- if the Panthers are going to get anything going offensively come fall.
Defensively, the Panthers looked quick in the spring, but they also are inexperienced in the secondary, a fact that could burn Pittsburgh against good passing teams. It's going to be a long offseason for Harris, but he's hoping to get some work done to make sure the season doesn't seem longer.
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS:2004 OL Rob Petitti, 2nd team All-America by Street & Smith's; 3rd team by Athlon. Rated the fifth-best tackle in the country in Lindy's.
KEY GAME: Hosting Boston College on Oct. 16 could be a turning point game for the Panthers in 2004. The contest will be the third straight Big East matchup for Pittsburgh against a strong Eagles team that figures to be a solid contender for the league crown. With six games under its belt, Pittsburgh will have had time to find itself, so how well the Panthers can do against the Eagles will show coach Walt Harris how good a team he has.
THE MINDSET: This is an entirely different team from a year ago, and not just because of the loss of all-everything receiver Larry Fitzgerald to the NFL. Three veteran offensive linemen and the entire starting backfield are gone as well, so Harris has to plug in a lot of new players this year. Teams aren't going to be expecting big things out of Pitt this season, so the Panthers may be able to pull some surprises if they can get it together early on.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Fitzgerald seems like the obvious answer here, and, yes, there's no way to replace Fitzgerald's outstanding play at receiver. The Panthers have a more realistic chance of making headway at the quarterback position, formerly maintained by Rod Rutherford. Juniors Luke Getsy and Tyler Palko battled it out in the spring, but neither took a lead in the race to replace Rutherford.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We'll have 10 bodies. I'm not sure all of them would necessarily qualify as linemen for various reasons, but we'll have enough guys to play the game." -- Head coach Walt Harris, underscoring the lack of healthy offensive linemen in spring practice prior to the team's spring game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: With so many players gone from last year, it's hard to know exactly what the offense is going to look like. One stalwart, though, is senior OT Rob Petitti, who will anchor a very inexperienced offensive line. Senior WR Princell Brockenbrough won't make anyone forget Larry Fitzgerald, but he's a capable player who should get even more looks now that Fitzgerald has moved on to the NFL.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: Seven starters return on this side of the ball, led by LB Brian Bennett, who ranked second on the Panthers in tackles a year ago with 118. Two fifth-year senior tackles -- Vince Crochunis and Dan Stephens -- anchor the defensive front.
INJURY IMPACT: Petitti sat out spring practice due to a shoulder injury. He was joined by fellow offensive linemen Justin Belarski, who sat out with a foot injury, and Matt Maiers, who missed some time as well.
RUTGERS INSIDE SLANT
There's a lot of optimism around the Rutgers football program, which might be a surprise for a team that finished just 5-7 in 2003.
Coach Greg Schiano spent the spring tightening things up and getting his team prepared for what he thinks will be a big season. Defensively, the team seems to be ahead of schedule, with the spring game finishing with just two touchdowns scored.
Schiano is comfortable with junior quarterback Ryan Hart at the controls. In fact, Hart took the fewest snaps in the spring game because Schiano was merely looking to find a solid backup quarterback for the season.
There is plenty of depth all over with experience at most positions, so Schiano spent much of spring practice time working on getting his team to become mentally tougher.
"We've become a better fundamental football team," Schiano told the Trenton Times prior to the spring game.
"We're not nearly where we need to be, but fortunately we don't open up tomorrow. You need to build mental toughness to be able to be at your best no matter what the situation. We created some opportunities this spring where we demanded that they be at their best in some bad situations."
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: 2004 Receivers and running backs ranked third in Big East by Athlon. It's a sign of progress that Rutgers is ranked No. 59 nationally in Lindy's, No. 61 by Athlon.
KEY GAME: The Scarlet Knights open with three straight home games, but the most important one is probably the first, against Michigan State. The Spartans outgunned Rutgers last season in East Lansing, 44-28, and getting off to a good start this year will be key for the Knights. All of the optimism the team built up in the offseason could be threatened with a bad showing against MSU, so coach Greg Schiano is hoping for a big game against the Big Ten foe.
THE MINDSET: The Knights lost six of their last eight contests in 2003, but closed with a 24-7 rout of Syracuse. Despite the poor record, Rutgers was in a lot of games against tough opponents, and in Schiano's eyes, the experience of last season will pay dividends in 2004
BIG SHOES TO FILL: DT Raheem Orr was considered one of the best pass-rushing ends in the country last year, and that kind of pressure will be hard to replace for the Knights. Freshman Jamaal Westerman won't step right into Orr's spot on the line, but he did have two sacks and a fumble recovery in the Rutgers spring game, leading some to believe he'll make an impact in 2004.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The pass rush and defensive line played well, which is encouraging. It's always interesting when you mix up the teams, because it gives you all kinds of different combinations." -- Head coach Greg Schiano on the biggest positive news from Rutgers' spring game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: Junior QB Ryan Hart got better and better as the season progressed in 2003, and he's looking like a possible star at the position in 2004. He'll look to junior WR Shawn Tucker often for big plays, as Tucker looks like he's ready to step up and become a go-to receiver for Rutgers.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: There are a lot of potential stars among the defensive front seven, including senior LB Maurice Hines and senior DL Piana Lukabu. Both players will be keys to Rutgers cutting down on its 29.5-ppg allowed in 2003.
INJURY IMPACT: The one area that was affected most by injuries during spring practice was the linebacking corps, which saw five different players miss various amounts of time.
Coming next - part two of TheInsiders.com July look at the Big East football conference