At the beginning of the season, Don Brown scrawled the number 36 on a goal scoreboard in Boston College’s defensive meeting room. It represented the number of sacks the defensive coordinator believed his players were capable of recording in 2013.
When Brown turned to gauge the reaction of his players, he was met by looks of incredulity.
“I think they thought I was out of my mind,’’ he said.
Among the skeptics was senior strong-side linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis, who ranks as BC’s leading tackler with 89 stops, including four sacks.
“I’ll never forget when he first put that number up there, 36, I was like, ‘Whoa, I have no idea how we’re going to get 36 sacks,’ ” said Pierre-Louis. “We were going from 6 to 36.”
Pierre-Louis was thrown for a loss by the projection. He wondered how in the world Brown expected the defense to manufacture 30 more sacks than it had the previous year, especially against dual-threat ACC quarterbacks such as Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, and Florida State’s Jameis Winston.
“It sounded like such a big number,’’ said senior defensive end Kasim Edebali, who leads the team with 9.5 sacks, which is 11th in FBS. “Obviously, we were slacking the last year, but Coach Brown believed in us and we believed in him.
“In that moment, I didn’t think he was crazy, I was just like, ‘Wow. Thirty-six sacks is a lot of sacks. How many is that a game?’ and he said, ‘We’re going to get three sacks a game.’ ”
With equal parts determination and faith in Brown’s attack-oriented scheme — which is predicated on creating chaos, negative-yardage plays, turnovers, and, oh yes, getting pressure on the quarterback — BC’s defense has been transformed.
After offering only a token pass rush last season, the Eagles are now a teeth-gnashing group of marauders who have racked up 29 sacks for 206 yards and 71 tackles for losses of 300 yards. That is a vast improvement over a year ago, when they had only six sacks and 45 TFLs for 147 yards.
With two regular-season games and quite possibly a bowl matchup left, starting with Saturday’s road test at Maryland, the Eagles (6-4, 3-3) are closing in on Brown’s objective.
“When you play this style, obviously, you’re trying to minimize all the damage you can, but the one thing I think is our guys have embraced it,’’ said Brown, the former University of Massachusetts head coach who served as defensive coordinator at Maryland and then Connecticut before joining Steve Addazio’s staff at BC.
“We’re certainly improving every day, but we’re still a work in progress, we really are. Usually, we’re asking the guys to get on top of 40 concepts — 40 — on a game-to-game basis, and it takes time.
“Usually in Year 1, there’s some growing pains with it, but if you keep your foot on the gas and stay true to beliefs, it’s going to be better for us in the long run.’’
So, what prompted the sudden turnaround? Was it a function of everyone buying into Brown’s scheme or was it the scheme itself?
“I’d say it was 50-50, scheme-related,’’ said Pierre-Louis. “Coach Brown has been doing a great job putting guys who he believes can make the plays in those particular blitzes. Everyone’s starting to buy in.
“I can’t say that we had everybody buying in at the beginning of the season. There were definitely probably some doubters. It was normal, based on what he had been doing in the past. But you can tell now that everyone is buying in and everyone wants to make a play.
“Now when we’re in the huddle, we’re going, ‘Coach, can we run this blitz? Can we do this? Can we do that?’ It puts a smile on his face when he sees everybody wanting to get after them.’’
The 29 sacks are BC’s most since 2008, when the Eagles recorded 35 in 13 games.
That team, led by stalwarts such as tackles B.J. Raji and Ron Brace, and linebackers Mark Herzlich, Mike McLaughlin, and Robert Francois, went 9-5 and earned a berth in the Music City Bowl.
Now, Brown’s projection doesn’t seem so crazy, after all.
“Each year, if we’re going to have any success at all, those two categories have to be strong,’’ said Brown, referring to sacks and tackles for loss. “We’ve got 29 now and if we can find a way to get seven more, it’s another goal, another feather in our cap.
“But the reality is, I’d trade all that in if we could just win the last two games. This has been a huge undertaking and a huge challenge, but I’ve got great guys and I wouldn’t trade any of them.’’