There was a time when Jeff Hafley once traveled to learn something from Dave Doeren. It preceded Saturday’s game between Boston College and NC State and was one of those times when a young coach wanted to learn from one of the best defensive minds in the game. Doeren, the defensive coordinator of Bret’s Wisconsin teams Bielema, was the architect of a team that finished in the top 10 nationally, so it was the perfect opportunity for a new face to connect and meet another coach as much as it was a chance to just learn something.
It sounds like an eternity, but on Saturday night the coaches who likely had a conversation and answered each other’s questions will meet in midfield as opponents in a divisional clash rife with playoff implications of the Atlantic Coast Conference. On one side will be Doeren, the head coach of a resurgent NC State team, while Hafley will stand on the other side as the man responsible for an equally strong rebound at Boston College.
It’s the first meeting as head coach since meeting over ten years ago, but in many ways it’s that same meeting that’s played out in real time between two coaches with immense respect l ‘for each other.
“I hope people will say that I compliment them on how hard they play and how physical they are,” Hafley said of his counterpart Wolfpack. “I hope they say the same [about us]. I don’t know how they see us [but] I think you will see two teams [ready to] running the ball, even though there are times when we throw it 60 times. “
That’s one way Hafley’s career will come full circle, and it comes in a game against one of BC’s most traditional measuring sticks. Hafley’s impression on Doeren left a mark, and it’s the perfect example of a coach impacting another program’s legacy without ever knowing it would lead to that fate.
The lines are one of the trademarks of the Little Coaching Brotherhood, and they dot Hafley’s career stretching back to that time on the staff under the direction of Pittsburgh head coach Dave Wannstedt. He worked with Darrelle Revis at the time with the Panthers and eventually returned to the All-Pro after landing at Tampa Bay for the 2013 season. It was a year after Hafley worked alongside Ronde Barber and Eric Wright in a Buccaneers team that included a defensive assistant. Tem Lukabu, now defensive coordinator for British Columbia.
It was a year before Hafley moved to Cleveland to coach a side group with Joe Haden and Donte Whitmer, and it preceded a term in San Francisco with Richard Sherman and Jimmie Ward. The two formed the core of the defensive backfield for eventual NFC champions, though Sherman was an established legend and Ward was a young first-round pick who previously played for Dave Doeren’s teams in northern Illinois for their BCS heist days.
“I’ve learned more from some of these players than I’ve ever learned from some coaches,” Hafley said. “If you’re talking about three depths and the kind of corners you look at, I spent more time picking out Richard Sherman’s brain in my boardroom or my office. We hung out just to see how he would view it. . Ronde Barber is another guy, [and] I chose his brain on how to play it safe.
“I know I was training these guys,” Hafley added, “but [Barber] was one of the best nickel [corners] of all time and will be a future Hall of Famer. John Lynch worked with the Niners – I mean, are you kidding me? It’s a Hall of Famer. I’m not going to ask him some questions about how to play it safe. I was really lucky to watch the Revis press and where his eyes and hands are. I was so lucky to be surrounded by good players. “
He taught Hafley how to customize a defense without reinventing the wheel, and the lesson plan fingerprints returned with him to college when he arrived at Ohio State in 2019. He took it to British Columbia. last year but turned on the electricity for a Frankenstein defense this year. Each play has a different tool or staple than its previous stops and former mentors and players, and the team that takes the pitch on Saturday now apply those lessons while merging new styles constantly absorbed with each game.
It worked to a fantastic degree in BC’s first five games, and the Eagles now enter this weekend 4-1 with a nation-leading defense in most overall and situational categories. They are fourth in the CCA and 31st nationally in scoring in Hafley’s second season, and defensive passing efficiency is third nationally and 32nd nationally. The overall throwing game numbers are the best in the league, and the rushed defense fits into both the league’s first tier and the NCAA.
The red zone defense is in the top percentile of the Football Bowl subdivision, and the third consistency is in the top 10. British Columbia grants the second-less first tries in the league and the 15th under the nation. , and there’s zero turnover thanks to his ability to produce the sixth-highest number of interceptions in the conference.
“I’m looking at the numbers,” Hafley said. “I look at [them] really hard. [The analytics] are really important, but you also need to know what you are playing is fair. Is it an aggressive plan to win or is it less aggressive? [That’s] what we need to understand and calculate. If the chart says he’s aggressive on the 4’s and the 5’s, then we’re off to it. We need to figure this out before the game starts with what you want on the call sheet. [But] a lot of it is because I have a sense of the game and the way we play. [We ask] how the defense plays and how the offense plays, if i really like the way [the play] looks and if I feel good [things] see. I am learning and I think we are improving. “
The Eagles are taught to perform at a high level, and much of their assessment is gained through experience and filtered through the educational aspect of Hafley’s training regimen. Each piece builds the database and is supported by both analytics and film, and what happens on any piece – good or bad – goes hand in hand with coaches who reinforce the fundamentals of what worked and what did not work in a unit known to play on the edge of a 60 minute soccer game.
“In general, I don’t teach much differently,” Hafley said. “It depends on where you are. If you’re playing in a phone booth, you want to put an epaulet across. [the ball carrier’s] breastbone, and if you can’t get your body through, you have to rock and roll and be violent. It depends on your approach and where you stand in relation to the ball carrier when you need to tackle them. “
Each position does it a little differently, but overall performance is why the defense consistently earns rave reviews as the offense went through a transition phase. The best tackles are evenly distributed across the three levels, and the four players with 20 or more tackles represent the defensive line, linebackers and secondary.
Three of those four have more unassisted tackles than group strikeouts, and each of the top five tackles has two or more tackles for a loss for a lethal combination capable of defeating opposing attacks in any situation. The two Isaiah Graham-Mobley and Kam Arnold patrol inside the defensive center, but Josh DeBerry and Brandon barlow are prime examples of how the secondary can step up while the defensive line is playing as well.
Their missions are different, but everyone is working in the room at some point. There are substitutions and team changes, but the juking and stunting is confusing for every offense. Shitta Sillah, for example, is a defensive end but may take up space for inside linemen like TJ Rayam and Cam Horsley, but their assignments merge to form a criticism against a monstrous offense like the one currently operating in the State of NC.
“[Their backs] are big and run strong and violent, ”Hafley said. “They’re trying to get through people, but they’ve got a lot of people missing tackles that add a lot of yards after contact. I think it starts up front, and it’s a nice addition to the way they play football. [The offensive line] is strong and patient, especially in their zone diagram, and they kind of wait for things to open up. Then [the backs] go hit and run violently. They’re probably the most violent running backs we’ve seen. “
Full backs are a big reason NC State is 4-1 with a win over Clemson. Zonovan Knight and Rickey Person Jr. both slashed South Florida 100 yards apiece in the opener, and their combined efforts produced 170 yards in the victory over the Tigers. They each touched a touchdown against Louisiana Tech in the last Wolfpack victory, and the only game they struggled to gain ground was the loss to Mississippi State.
Devin Leary managed to rally the Wolfpack, but his 49 passing attempts failed to overcome Mike Leach’s aerial assault. The Bulldogs built a 14-3 lead in the first half and led by 21 in the fourth quarter, but Leary still finished with 30 completed passes and over 300 yards. He threw a touchdown late, but it made up for an interception in the team’s only loss this season.
“You better have several hats at the ball [to stop the runners]”said Hafley.” Your [tackles] better not be arm tackles, or they will slip through. It will be about the approach and the fact that several people [to the point of attack]. It’s about the fundamentals and technique and how we teach tackling.
“But I’m not going to reinvent the way we tackle depending on who he plays,” he reiterated. “There’s going to be a tackle plan, and we’ll figure out the best ways to bring these guys down, and that’s what we’re talking to the players about.”
Boston College will meet the nationally ranked NC State Wolfpack at Alumni Stadium on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. The game will be televised nationally via the ACC network with online streaming available to cable subscribers with access to the channel.