The shuffling and reshuffling of the Boston College defense started in the summer.
Sean Sylvia spent the entire offseason practicing at free safety.
Then the bodies started dropping. Al Jean-Louis went down for 6-8 weeks with a broken foot. CJ Jones went down after that.
Plans had to be scrapped, and the game of musical chairs on the Eagles defense started. By the time the season opener against Miami came around, Sylvia had gone from safety to corner just to shore up the unit. He had never played the position before, but with the defense in a bind before the season even started, he didn’t care.
“For me I just go out there and play,” he said. “I’d go out there and play D-end if they told me I had to go play there.”
In the film room, he always had an eye on the entire secondary, so knowing the assignments wasn’t an issue.
“To me it doesn’t matter,” Sylvia said. “I prepare the same at corner and safety. I’m not making any drastic changes.”
But moving in order to plug holes in an injury-riddled unit is at the root of the struggling Eagles’ defense this season.
Six players have started in the secondary this season. Seven have weaved in and out of a patchwork defensive line. The defense coach Frank Spaziani expected to send out at the start of the season has never seen the field, and in the Eagles’ five games, he’s had to go with five starting combinations.
BC will travel to Florida State to face the No. 12 Seminoles Saturday without four starters and Spaziani will again have to sew his defense together.
The depth chart is a minefield of injuries, starting with the defensive line, which will be without linemen Kaleb Ramsey, Brian Mihalik and in all likelihood Dominic Appiah, who is listed as doubtful. Defensive back Spenser Rositano will also sit out with a head injury.
“That hurts, but we can’t use that as an excuse because it’s, ‘Yes sir. No, sir. No excuse, sir,’ ” Spaziani said. “People only want to see [wins and losses]. We have to work through those problems, and it is a problem. That’s the best way I can say it. It’s a problem when you have to put different guys in.”
When he evaluated his team before the season, Spaziani expected the defense to be behind the retooled offense, but not as far as they have been. In three games this season the offense has put up at least 30 points only to be let down by a defense that’s been unable to stop the run or come up with game-changing plays. Along with keeping some of the Eagles key players off the field, injuries have taken a toll on continuity.
“It’d be nice to have the same guys out there every week, but that’s just another challenge we’ve had to face,” said linebacker Nick Clancy. “Guys getting injured, maybe guys not getting it done, guys maybe not fitting properly at a different position. When you’re losing like that, coaches tend to try to switch guys around, maybe put them in a spot where they think they can be more successful.
“It’d be better if we could get 11 guys out there every day, but it’s hard when you’ve got guys that are injured. But I don’t think that’s an excuse. At the end of the day, the guys that are out there practicing, they’re there to play, they’re ready to play.
As a result, players like Sylvia have had to wear as many hats as possible.
“It goes for a lot of guys,” Sylvia said. “Someone like Manny [Asprilla] can go play free safety and be fine. Someone like Jim Noel can play boundary corner where he used to play and be fine. It is nice to get a nice, cohesive unit back there, but it’s football. We get injuries and guys need to move around and adapt to the hand dealt.”
Not surprisingly, the Eagles are giving up 29 points and 469.8 yards per game with the worst run defense in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“The defense has had some problems,” Spaziani said. “One of the problems has been he’s in, he’s out, he’s hurt, we’ve got to try a new guy and on defense it shows up faster than on offense. It’s been a problem that we’ve had trouble working through.”