Down The Stretch They Come
Nov. 10, 1999
By Jack Clary
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- It's that time of year when defense wins championships - or gets you to a better postseason bowl game and a higher national ranking.
Meaning, it is that time of the year - with just three games remaining against West Virginia, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech and a postseason bowl trip on the line - when Chris Hovan and Frank Chamberlin saddle up their defensive mates and set the pace for Boston College's stretch run.
Sure, the offense knows it still has a very important role to play, but when it's crunch time in football, the defense must set the physical and emotional tempo.
There are no better tempo-setters than Hovan, one of the best defensive tackles ever to play at Boston College, and Chamberlin, who seemed to dismantle Syracuse's offense bit-by-bit two weeks ago. They are the leaders of the Eagles defensive unit and like all great players, they relish the challenge of big games. Starting against West Virginia, there are none bigger than the last three on the schedule.
All season, we have heard how BC's defense is the heart of this year's team, and for the most part that has been true. It has been a tightly knit group, which, with the exception of games against Temple and Miami, has always had enough power to keep the opposition at bay while the offense got the points.
For the most part, Hovan and Chamblerlin have led the way.
But it hasn't been easy for the 6-3, 290-pound Hovan, who has found himself to be the object of every offensive coordinator's imagination when schemes were drawn up to try and neutralize his superb talent. In every game, he knows the opposition has something special planned to try and contain him. Forget the good old days of playing one-on-one, mano-a-mano. Regardless of where he has lined up across the front of BC's defense, he has been double-teamed, he has been pin-balled by offensive linemen and backs alike, he has seen H-backs peel off and come at him in tandem with their offensive linemates, he has been the target of lead blockers trying to clear some space for a running back.
Sometimes, when he lines up and sees that he's facing just one man across the line of scrimmage, it's almost too good to be true. Which it is because before the ball is snapped, the offense makes an adjustment in its blocking scheme, or a player moves into position to give him special attention.
"I'm used to it by now," the native of Rocky River, Ohio and St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland says. "Now, I just wonder what I will see next. Whatever it is, I can't do much about it except to play the defense we have called. If they want to concentrate on me, we are good enough where someone else will make a play, so in the end, we win.
"Miami had a guard, center, tackle and running back, or combinations of them, on me on every play. At Syracuse, they had game-planned stopping me inside and I went out to end. But it wasn't long before they made adjustments and had two guys on me all the time. Hey, I guess that's a matter of respect for what I can do and I accept that.
"But," he adds, "it's not that I'm out there alone. Coach (Mike) London also has his schemes and they are designed so that each of us along the D-line will be effective, regardless of what the opposition does."
So far this year, that effectiveness can be measured by 52 tackles, 32 of them solos, a team-leading eight sacks plus five "hurries," 14 plays where he has thrown a runner for a loss, four forced fumbles, five passes that he has knocked down at the line of scrimmage, and a blocked kick. Put all of that together, and you spell All-America, and All-BIG EAST, and high NFL draft pick.
"His success is not accident," says London, BC's defensive line coach. "Chris is the hardest worker I've ever been around, and we've been together for three years. He came here and played right away as a freshman, and his growth as a player has been a great example for every young player on the team.
"He has reached a maturity that every great player seems to achieve, that he knows exactly what it will take to get himself ready," London says. "He does his work in the weight room without being told. He watches hours of film every week so that he knows the tendencies of the players he'll be facing. By the time he goes on the field on Saturday, he has a solid idea of exactly what he'll be facing and how he's going to beat it. He has that great confidence that says, 'You can do anything you want but you're not going to beat me'."
Hovan, who also has been invited to every major post-season all-star game and has yet to choose which he'll attend, emphasizes that all the turmoil he faces is made much easier because he trusts those around him. "We're a tightly-knit group," he says of his fellow defensive line mates. "We watch film together, we discuss situations together, we are inseparable, like a clique. We are all good friends who enjoy playing together and when you feel that way about your teammates, I believe you naturally work harder and feel more confident that you're never alone out there."
Chamberlin has trod the same road. He's a film-freak (though no one uses movie film anymore, the word lives on) who can't seem to learn enough about what he should do, and what the opposition will do. His position coach, Al Golden, said that his study between spring drills and pre-season camp was remarkable.
"He had everything down when we started in August," Golden said. "He was constantly asking questions, wanting to know everything about what we were doing and why we did it. He would break down every nuance of what he saw on the game tapes and make us explain to him what it all meant."
To Chamberlin, all of that work was necessary because he wanted to be at his best for his final season, "to make it special."
"The defenses were new and I needed to learn them thoroughly so I would feel comfortable when it came time to play," he added. "I just didn't want to fall behind."
Actually, Chamberlin is one of those players who is worth several players. Unlike most linebackers, he is part of the Eagles' nickel and dime defensive packages, as much for run-stopping protection as for his ability to get into passing lanes and disrupt or his use in blitzing schemes. Earlier in his BC career, he played fullback and H-Back, and was so valuable at those positions that he was able to retain his favorite high school number, 44.
"I really enjoyed those other positions, but I guess playing linebacker is the most satisfying," he said. "I was recruited to play there. I had played both linebacker and fullback in high school (Mahwah High School in New Jersey) and I'm glad to be back there full-time."
To him, the time he spends in preparation is no big deal, just part of what he believes he must do to be effective. "Thorough preparation gives me a sense of comfort, that I am prepared for anything that will happen on the field. Then, all I have to do is go out and play as hard as I can because I don't have to stop and think, 'Do I go here?' or 'Do I go there?' or what do I do in this or that situation. Just line up and play the defense that is called."
Few have ever done it better in any game in BC history that the 6-1, 250-pound senior did in the team's gutsy 24-23 victory against Syracuse . . . 25 tackles, 15 of them were solo, three plays in which he threw runners for a loss, one and a half sacks, and a 26-yard interception return. All of that earned him USA Today Player of the Week, the Bronco Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week Award, and several Big East weekly citations.
"I was out there a long time," he says, "and the longer you're on the field, the more tackle opportunities you get. But it was a big game for the entire defense and we all played well as a unit, which is what really counts."
For the season, he leads the team in tackles with 96, including 63 solos, he has made nine plays in which he has thrown runners for a loss, he has two fumble recoveries, and against the passing game, he has two sacks, four "hurries," knocked two down and has an interception.
How does he look at the season's last three games?
"One at a time," he said quickly. "November is the time when we can finish a really good season. It is a tough schedule and we have to play well, we have to battle. We can't think about anything but each game as it comes along or we'll lose our focus."
Which, of course, is playing another game in December or January.