The common thread through the young and energized staff assembled by Boston College first-year head coach Jeff Hafley is a wealth of football IQ and experience at the highest level of the sports.
Nearly half of Hafley’s 11 assistants have NFL experience. All but one has been on a coaching staff at a Power 5 school. In a sense, Hafley’s staff comes across as more of a football think tank.
“What we both believe in and what we’ve talked about is blending the best of the National Football League with the best of college football and high school football,” said Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, who spent 11 seasons in the NFL. “Being able to bring the concepts from the NFL and college and blending it together to put us in position to be successful.”
Receiver coach Joe Dailey could see it coming together as Hafley made phone calls to sift through candidates.
“Just speaking to Jeff throughout the entire process, he talked about a number of different things in regards to what he was looking for in his staff and how he was going to build it,” Dailey said. “Youth wasn’t going to be a criteria for him, it just happened to be that it was a lot of guys under 40 that he was considering. Then after you started listening to him, he started mentioning certain names and you started to put it together, we all had very similar character and characteristics: excitement, juice, energy, confidence, a lot of football experience, coordinating experience, ties to the Northeast, the National Football League.”
While the cliché is that professional football is a business, the reality is that in order to get the most out of any player, a coach has to be able to reach them.
“The way I see it is, coaching in the National Football League is, one, such an honor. You’re coaching great players,” said Eagles defensive coordinator Tem Lukabu, who was the Cincinnati Bengals linebackers coach in 2019 and spent two years alongside Hafley with the San Francisco 49ers from 2016-17. “You’re coaching Xs and Os all day and the fundamentals and techniques, so there’s things that are being done in the National Football League that we want to do here in terms of how you run the ball, how you protect the quarterback, how you throw the ball.
“Then there’s things that are in college football that are starting to make their way to the National Football League — the quarterback runs, the RPOs [run-pass options], playing some no-huddle. So we want to blend the best of both and have a very dynamic, explosive offense here at Boston College.”
The attention to detail that’s required in the NFL will be a part of the foundation BC will try to establish as it begins spring practice this week.
“You have to be a teacher,” said offensive line coach Matt Applebaum, who joined the Eagles after two years as Towson’s offensive line coach and three years as a pro personnel assistant with the Washington Redskins. “I think that’s something that’s unique to coaching at that level — not that there’s not people at other levels that coach in that way — but I think it’s expected and demanded at that level because the players are grown men. The players are professionals at what they do.
“For a younger coach, like my first run with the Redskins, I’m younger than some of the players, so I’m not going to go yell at them and think that’s coaching. I have to bring something to the table or they’re not going to respect me.
“So I think working in the NFL brings that out of you. It demands that you’re a master at your craft, that you bring something to the table of value and that you know how to articulate yourself and teach. I think it carries over across all levels.”
Having so many high-minded coaches on the same staff gives the Eagles an abundance of ideas to work with as they decide how to optimize the talent they’ll inherit.
“When you have different guys from different backgrounds, different levels, I think it allows for everybody to input their ideas, their thoughts and their opinions in a very, very objective fashion,” said defensive line coach Vince Oghobaase, a former defensive lineman at Duke, who spent time on practice squads with the Dolphins and Redskins. “Whether we like it or not, everybody has something to bring to the table.”
Rich Gunnell, who served as interim head coach last December after the firing of head coach Steve Addazio, made the switch to running backs coach and is already soaking up the knowledge around him.
“I’ve been around some really good offensive coordinators and they’ve all had NFL ties and you just keep learning more and more when these guys come around,” Gunnell said. “It just makes you realize, there’s even more I’ve got to learn.”
Sean Duggan, a linebacker and captain for the Eagles in 2014, returned to his alma mater to coach his old position after a stint at as a graduate assistant at Ohio State last year.
“We’ve got a really smart staff, so I feel really fortunate to be a part of this staff and just picking their brain,” Duggan said. “Being at those higher places, you do realize how much details matter. One step the wrong way, you could be chasing a guy on defense. So being at those places, you’re just learning how detailed you have to be to be successful. It’s little things, like in walk-through, am I dialed in?”
The credentials matter.
“It just makes you, I guess, certified, competent,” Dailey said. “When you’re recruiting both fans, players, coaches, etc. to want to be a part of this program, they can see that you meet all the criteria necessary to be affiliated with BC football, the ACC, and to recruit a certain type of athlete to an institution like this. These guys know what they’re talking about and they’re all under one roof, one umbrella.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.