Linebacker Mark Herzlich's comeback will garner most of the preseason headlines around Chestnut Hill, but there are plenty of other reasons to keep an eye on Boston College this season.
BC has made a habit of sneaking up on ACC foes since it joined the league, and the Eagles have enough firepower to outperform expectations once again.
The offense features a veteran line opening holes for explosive running back Montel Harris, though the passing game clearly needs work. The defense returns linebacker Luke Kuechly, one of the nation's most prolific tacklers last season as a true freshman.
BC's chances of contending for its third Atlantic Division title in four seasons would get a major boost if Herzlich makes a successful return from Ewing's sarcoma, a form of bone cancer. Herzlich, a Butkus Award finalist two years ago, is rejoining the Eagles after sitting out the 2009 season.
THE SCHEME: Boston College typically operates out of one-back sets. Sometimes, the Eagles will have three wide receivers and one tight end, while in other instances they will have two tight ends and two wide receivers on the field.
STAR POWER: RB Montel Harris could go down as one of the most productive rushers in school history by the end of his career. Two years ago, he rushed for 900 yards, a record for BC freshmen. He followed that last season by rushing for 1,457 yards, the fifth-highest total in school history. Harris owns school single-game records in carries (41 against Maryland), yards (264 against N.C. State) and touchdown runs (five against N.C. State). He rushed for more than 100 yards in each of Boston College's last five games a year ago. LT Anthony Castonzo, who will be a four-year starter, has legitimate All-America aspirations. BC churns out numerous top-flight linemen, and Castonzo is the latest off the assembly line. He is seen as a likely first-round pick in the 2011 NFL draft.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: The Eagles have plenty of playing time available in the receiving corps as they attempt to replace the departed Rich Gunnell, who had a team-high 60 receptions for 880 yards last season. That could create an opportunity for Jonathan Coleman, a 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman. He made plenty of notable catches that caught the attention of coaches in practice last season.
STRONGEST AREA: BC should run the ball effectively against just about anyone. Harris is one of the most underrated backs in the nation, and he should find plenty of holes while operating behind a line that returns four starters. The line is anchored by Castonzo and G Thomas Claiborne.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The Eagles need to run the ball well because they probably won't throw the ball consistently. Dave Shinskie's ability to return to football after playing minor league baseball for a handful of seasons makes him a nice story, but he needs to develop consistency. Shinskie threw nearly as many interceptions (14) as touchdown passes (15) last season. And he no longer has the luxury of throwing to Gunnell, who caught more than twice as many passes as any of his teammates last season.
THE SCHEME: Boston College runs a 4-3 defense. Linebacker coach Bill McGovern doubles as the coordinator, but this is really coach Frank Spaziani's defense. He had been coordinator for 10 years before being promoted to coach before last season. BC plays an aggressive style and isn't afraid to blitz.
STAR POWER: Mark Herzlich was the ACC's defensive player of the year in 2008 before sitting out last season. LB Luke Kuechly burst onto the scene as a true freshman and ranked second in the nation in solo tackles (87) and overall tackles (158). If Herzlich regains his '08 form, he and Kuechly could form the nation's top linebacker duo. The coaching staff is proceeding with caution in Herzlich's comeback, but he is aiming to be in the lineup for the season opener.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: LB Kevin Pierre-Louis arrived on campus as the No. 10 outside linebacker prospect in the 2010 recruiting class, and the early enrollee spent spring practice living up to that billing. Boston College has plenty of talented linebackers on its roster, but this former Gatorade state player of the year from Connecticut will find a way to earn playing time. He's too good to spend an entire season on the sideline.
STRONGEST AREA: If you've read the rest of Boston College's defensive profile, it's obvious where the Eagles are strongest. Kuechly's emergence, Herzlich's comeback and Pierre-Louis' arrival should make Boston College loaded at linebacker. The Eagles also return Mike Morrissey, a former walk-on who recorded seven tackles for loss last season.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: BC needs to establish more of a pass rush. The Eagles had just 18 sacks last season and ranked 103rd in the nation and last in the ACC with 1.38 sacks per game. They could have a tougher time applying pressure this season following the graduations of Austin Giles and Jim Ramella. Giles had 6.5 tackles for loss last season, while Ramella led the Eagles with three sacks.
Boston College must find a new kicker to replace Steve Aponavicius, whose accuracy (13-of-14 on field-goal attempts last season) made up for his lack of range. Contenders for the job include P Ryan Quigley and redshirt freshman Nate Freese. Quigley ranked fifth in the ACC last season with an average of 40.8 yards per punt while helping Boston College rank 37th nationally in net punting. BC needs to find new return men following the departures of Gunnell and Jeff Smith. The Eagles ranked 14th in the nation last year in kickoff coverage, and the punt coverage was solid.
BC needs to get off to a fast start. The Eagles play their first four games at home before going on the road for five of their last eight contests. Boston College shouldn't have a problem with Weber State and Kent State in the first two weeks of the season, but the Eagles follow that up by playing host to Virginia Tech and Notre Dame. BC faces Atlantic Division favorite Florida State on the road, but the Eagles manage to avoid Georgia Tech, North CarolinaandMiami. An old Big East rivalry will resume Nov. 27 when Boston College closes its regular-season schedule at Syracuse.
It wouldn't be a huge surprise if BC reached the ACC championship game for the third time in four seasons. The Eagles have a solid defense, an exceptional rushing attack, a veteran offensive line and a favorable conference schedule. If the Eagles merely get average production from their passing attack, they could earn a ticket to Charlotte. But will that happen? The deficiencies in the passing game and in the pass rush likely mean BC will finish second or third in the ACC Atlantic, with another appearance in a minor bowl.