When Boston College center Jon Baker doubled over in pain, reaching to his left leg after trying to make a run block late in the fourth quarter of the season-opening win over Northern Illinois, no one was quite sure of whatever injury he had suffered or, for that matter, what exactly the injury was.
The fact that he only missed one play before coming back on the field to finish out the game made it that much more difficult to gauge.
Baker wasn’t just the center of the offensive line, he was one of the cornerstones of BC’s offense. He had made 27 consecutive starts, he made the calls at the line of scrimmage, and he was the security blanket for redshirt freshman quarterback Anthony Brown.
Seeing him on the turf was a gut punch to everyone on the Eagles sideline expecting to return to a bowl game this season.
The offensive linemen were worried about their leader.
“We were just nervous for Jon,” said junior guard Chris Lindstrom. “I thought it was his ankle at first because he came back, because he’s really tough.”
The Eagles found out that Baker suffered a season-ending ACL injury and immediately started thinking of not only what it meant for one of the most important players on the team but also what it meant for the rest of their season.
“When we found out it was his knee, we were devastated more as his friends than anything just hearing that news because he was going to have a great year,” Lindstrom said.
Coach Steve Addazio played his cards close to the vest in terms of how he would replace Baker. But ultimately he threw his chips in on 6-foot-5-inch, 300-pound freshman Ben Petrula, who had never played center.
Petrula had no idea how much playing time he’d see has a freshman. At best, he figured he’d get some reps at tackle and play with the second team all season. In training camp, Baker was a mentor showing Petrula the ropes. In a blink, Petrula was in Baker’s shoes.
“There was a moment of just, ‘Wow,’ ” Petrula said. “Just ‘unreadiness,’ I guess would be the word — if that’s even a word. Just looking up to him as a leader throughout camp and throughout the whole training season, it’s hard to see him not on the field, and then having to take that spot over was really, really hard, especially as a young guy.”
But in the eight games since Baker went down, the Eagles’ offensive line has been a galvanized unit that’s quietly been at the heart of a midseason resurgence that’s put BC on the brink of securing a fourth bowl appearance in five years as it gets set to face N.C. State at Alumni Stadium on Saturday.
The Eagles have given up the fewest sacks in the Atlantic Coast Conference while opening up holes for the ACC’s fourth-best rushing attack, managing to hold things together when the loss of Baker threatened to derail them as a unit.
The moment they found out Baker would be out for the season, the offensive linemen worked to figure out how to fill a monstrous void.
“Everything happens so fast in college football,” Lindstrom said. “So as soon as that happened, we just had to go to work and attack the next week.”
Petrula felt the weight immediately, but his teammates along the line refused to let him carry it alone.
“Jon was like the apex of what we do,” Petrula said. “So when he went down, we kind of shared the load of trying to develop each other. He’s the communications guy, so he had everything rolling on all cylinders. So once he goes out, it made us play to our best because we had to be on top of our communications.”
Baker’s presnap signal calling — identifying defenders and calling out assignments — was crucial to Brown, in his first year under center for the Eagles.
“It changed a lot for me,” Brown said. “With Jon, it was like having another quarterback out there.”
Brown and Petrula had to get on the same page — quickly. That meant being attached at the hip after practice and after class, working on snaps and calls. They had a bond going back to their days playing Pop Warner football together in New Jersey, which made it easier.
“Ben is getting to that point and it’s helped me mature with my position and progressing with my position to where I have to make more calls,” Brown said. “Ben has made a tremendous leap in his role for our offense and our team and it’s been extremely great for us.”
Riding three straight wins, the offensive line can see the rewards of pushing through a devastating loss.
“I’m just proud of our guys, proud of our unit, and proud to be on this team,” Lindstrom said. “We were hit with so much adversity this year and we’re working through it and pushing and have a great opportunity this week and the rest of the season. I’m just proud of this team that when adversity hit, we really came together and worked through it.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.