Boston College lost two of the top-four leading tacklers in the ACC and a third multi-year starting linebacker with 197 career total tackles this offseason.
There are shoes to fill in the second level.
Head coach Jeff Hafley wants an old-fashioned competition.
“Those jobs are open,” Hafley said after practice on March 27. “I don’t care if it’s a returning guy who’s gonna be a senior. I don’t care if it’s a transfer. I don’t care if it’s a rookie.
“Whoever plays and takes over those roles, whether it’s the leadership role or just who can fill in the void and be our best guy, that guy’s gonna play.”
Temple grad transfer Isaiah Graham-Mobley is in the running. The veteran played 43 games with the Owls. His best season came in 2018 when he racked up 70 total tackles, which was tied for fourth on the team at the time. But a pair of ankle injuries cut his next two seasons short, including the 2020 campaign when he started the year with 19 tackles and a sack in two games.
True freshman Bryce Steele is also in the mix. Originally listed as a safety in BC’s official release for its 2021 recruiting class on Dec. 16, 2020, Steele is back to linebacker, his natural position. He possesses a combo of physicality and speed. Similarly, Kam Arnold, who made 15 tackles at safety last year, has bumped down to the second level. Arnold debuted against Texas State following Deon Jones’ injury and Jahmin Muse’s targeting ejection. The West Bloomfield, Michigan, native stepped up, creating two third down stops during BC’s comeback victory.
Hafley explained that when he and his staff went back and watched the tape this offseason, they realized how effective Arnold was inside the box this season. Additionally, they observed that it was hard for the 6-foot Arnold to maintain his goal weight in the secondary. Factor in the void left by Isaiah McDuffie and Max Richardson, and you get Arnold’s move to linebacker.
“I am very excited about him and what’s he done this spring—how quickly he’s embraced it, how fast he’s learning it,” Hafley said Saturday. “Coach [Sean] Duggan has done an awesome job with him. He’s got a chance to be a really good linebacker because he can run, and he can cover.”
Hafley has repeatedly emphasized the importance of playing with more speed on defense. He said that one way of accomplishing that is moving pieces around: corners to safety, safeties to linebacker, linebackers to defensive end, and defensive ends to defensive tackle.
Vinny DePalma could be part of the equation, too. The redshirt junior missed all of last year with injury but is working his way back to contact drills now. He participated in individual work and 7-on-7s during Saturday’s practice. DePalma notched 33 total tackles, notably five for loss, in 2019 and kicked off his career with 10 total tackles, a pair of TFLs, and a sack as a true freshman.
Hafley is excited to have DePalma 100 percent by training camp, however, he’s been happy to see the DePaul Catholic product on the field this spring.
“He’s such a smart football player,” Hafley said. “He’s a great communicator. … You can just hear him out there ’cause he’s got such good leadership quality.”
DePalma and Arnold could play alongside each other this season.
But, for now, the competition, in Hafley’s words, is “wide open.”