Speed? Athleticism? A nationally respected superstar? They're no longer a few Big East bullies teaching the ACC what run defense looks like. These are three athletes who just happen to know how to hit. I don't think Tom O'Brien would admit it (and likely his northeast-style play-calling won't reflect it), but these are three guys that were primed to play linebacker in the ACC.
"Last year we weren't sure what we were getting into," said Brian Toal, a junior whose stock has only risen since his highly anticipated freshman season. "It was a whole new league for us and everyone was like, ‘Are you ready for the speed of the ACC?' Right now we've seen the speed. We know what it is. We realize that there's a little more speed [than the Big East] but we know we can handle the speed."
All three were superior running backs in high school. Toal ran for 32 touchdowns as a senior at Don Bosco and led the Eagles a year ago with six. Jolonn Dunbar – who will play in the middle - 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 two-way stud at Brockton High and a standout member of the track team.
Now they're all juniors and they're all linebackers. With Ray Henderson and Ricky Brown gone to graduation, though, this year's crew does lose some meat. The total weight of Dunbar and Pruitt (the replacements) is more than 30 pounds lighter than that of Henderson and Brown. Last year, those extra pounds behind the defensive line helped give BC the league's best rushing defense. With a much sleeker look this season (coupled with the loss of two big d-linemen), it's doubtful that the Eagles' run-stoppers will maintain the dominance they displayed in 2005 (they allowed only 90 yards-per-game and just six rushing touchdowns).
Lighter and faster, however, might be the way to go to solve some glaring weaknesses from a year ago. BC was 10th in the ACC in pass defense and was tied (with Duke and Wake Forest) for the least number of takeaways. Clogging the middle with big bodies will stop teams from running the ball, but it won't help when tight ends run like wide receivers and halfbacks run like Justin Gatlin. Unleashing the quick and athletic trio of Dunbar, Toal, and Pruitt will result in better sideline-to-sideline pass coverage and, consequently, turnovers in more spots on the field.
Here is one question that you might be asking: "Yeah, but can they hit?" Um, yes. I'll let you see some of my notes from the spring game.
"Run to the corner…stuck by Dunbar." "Roll-out pass for five yards to tight-end…Pruitt ruins him." "Screen pass to [Mark] Palmer…Dunbar takes his head off."
They go everywhere and they pack every bit of their speed into their punch. Even back-ups Mike McLaughlin and Robert Francois were using their "hit stick." Toal wasn't cleared to play back then (don't worry, he's 100% now) and hasn't hit someone in a long time. That only serves as fuel.
"I haven't hit since the [MPC Computers] Bowl Game, so I'm real excited," Toal said. "I'm really excited to get back to hitting. That's something I really enjoy doing. It's frustrating [not being able to hit], you see your teammates running around there and you just want to be out there. To not be out there for seven or eight months, not hitting anyone, you want to go out there a lot more than the other guys do."
So the coaching staff will sacrifice a little size (and a dominant run defense) for a little speed (and a more balanced attack). Henderson and Brown's leadership will certainly be missed, but not for long. Dunbar is in the middle and knows that he has to be the leader. He'll tell you that if you ask him, but he'd rather show you. During practice, Dunbar's boys have an intimidating swagger. It doesn't matter what they're doing – they might be scrimmaging, they might just be lining up for formation – they make all kinds of noise before the snap as they bounce around and call out the offense's play. It's as if they're just itching to show off their product.
"I'm excited," Dunbar said. "I can't wait for the challenge. It's definitely a challenge, coming in behind Ray. I'm just ready to come in and play. I bring a lot of athleticism, a lot of speed, some knowledge to the game, so I think that's where I come in. We're all good, smart football players. We're like a well-oiled machine."