For all the signals he had learned and all the ones he would be responsible for as the middle linebacker — essentially the motherboard of Boston College’s defense — Nick Clancy knew there was a chance that everything could go haywire.
Before they opened the season against Miami last Saturday, the Eagles had a hunch that the Hurricanes would hurry the game up.
It would mean Clancy, making the most important decisions on defense for the first time in his five years at The Heights, would have to make them as quickly as possible.
As calls were pinging back and forth from the coaches to the field, it was as though he had been thrown in the middle of traffic on the information superhighway.
“I had the signal,” he said, snapping his fingers. “And I had to go rapid-fire relaying the calls back and forth.”
Part of the challenge for Clancy was keeping it all together.
“It’s hard to stay calm,” he said. “But you’ve got to force yourself to do that. Once you see the call from the sideline, you’ve got to get in that zone where you get everybody set up, and then you’ve got to at the same time see what they’re doing on offense.”
Part of it is knowing what to do when it falls apart.
He was prepared for the possibility of “if all else fails . . .” and the signals broke down. He knew his worst-case-scenario instructions.
“That’s not easy,” said BC coach Frank Spaziani. “Even though he’s a five-year senior, been around, to go in the first game in a new position, starting, and then have a lot of responsibility. But that’s why we put him there, and he did a reasonably good job.”
The stresses are what Clancy signed up for when came back for a fifth season. When Luke Kuechly left for the NFL, he left a hole 532 tackles deep in the BC defense. Clancy wanted to do his best to fill it.
There were no guarantees from the coaching staff. But in the preseason, Clancy earned the spot at the center of the defense. He earned the trust of his teammates, making sure he was getting their instructions across clearly, and asking some of the veterans if he was making the right calls.
“All the guys on defense know him really well,” said junior defensive end Kasim Edebali. “We feel comfortable with what he’s saying, we trust him. And even if he would say something wrong, we have a lot of trust in Nick. So we’ve got his back, he’s got our back, it’s nothing too different.
“Clancy’s a really smart guy. Even after practice he comes up to me like, ‘Kasim, did you get the call?’ Just communicating with us on and off the field so we understand what we have to do and we’re always on the same page.
Clancy studied the way Kuechly prepared, his inside-and-out knowledge of the Eagles defense. But he isn’t trying to be Kuechly.
“It’s different not having Luke there,” said senior safety Jim Noel said. “But I think he’s done a real good job in replacement of Luke. We’re still trying to adjust to him, but he’s been doing a good job in the middle.
“I’ve been here for years. So I know what’s going on. I know when to make the checks, when to help him out when he doesn’t see things, and I do. We have a lot of conversations to see if guys are on the same page with the checks and everything.”
After the Eagles gave up 41 points and 415 yards of total offense to the Hurricanes, it became clear that the defense is a long way from what it wants to be. But when Spaziani looked at the unit’s intensity level, he was pleased with the way bodies flew around, honing in on someone to hit.
And when he looked at the job Clancy had done making sure everyone knew their assignments, Spaziani joked, “We’ve had worse in there.”
Even with all the pressures that come with it, Clancy is proud to be at the intersection of information on the BC defense.
“When it’s all said and done,” Clancy said, “you’re the guy that sets everybody up. You communicate the defense for everybody. So that’s what I’ve kind of tried to do this offseason, just prepare myself mentally to make those kind of calls, be able to make adjustments when the offense audibles.
“What I’ve tried to do is increase my football IQ and get everybody set up, because once everybody’s set up and in the same defense together, everybody’s comfortable, and when you’re comfortable, you’re confident.”