Boston College opens spring practice Saturday under first-year coach Jeff Hafley, and that is when an experiment worth watching begins.
Hafley wants to find the mesh point between college football and the NFL to revive a middling program that has a 57-69 record since 2010. For the 40-year-old coach, there is an answer as to why somebody would want to do that.
"Because you get a combination of two great leagues," Hafley told Sporting News with no reservations. "There are so many great things in the National Football League that I spent seven years in and got to learn and experience and see. I have 10-plus years in college football. Leaving Ohio State, obviously one of the highest levels, you see things you love, too.
"You kind of combine both to form your own philosophy, and that's really what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to get the best of both leagues, because that's what I've learned."
Hafley's stock soared in one season as Ohio State's co-defensive coordinator, a year in which he helped flip the Buckeyes from 52nd in the nation in scoring defense to fourth. That allowed Hafley to experience a top-shelf college football program, which added to his worldly football view. Hafley spent the first 11 years of his coaching career as an assistant coach in college before a seven-year stint as a secondary coach in the NFL.
Nine stops and two decades of experience brought Hafley back to the East Coast. Fit matters when hiring a head coach, and Hafley fits Boston College.
The program enjoyed success with coaches like this before — but they typically went on to success in professional football afterward. Jack Bicknell went to the World League of American Football, later known as NFL Europe. Tom Coughlin and Dan Henning went to the NFL, where Coughlin won two Super Bowls. Jeff Jagodzinski, the last coach to win double-digit games for the Eagles, took a job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2009.
Hafley, meanwhile, used the NFL to get a last-line-of-defense view of college football. He's a secondary coach at heart, and that shows when he talks scheme between the two games.
"I mean, look, defending the NFL passing game is hard," Hafley said. "It's hard. I'm not saying college isn't, but there a are lot of things in the pass game and the coverage game that I looked at."
"When you get to college, with all the RPO game and the quarterback running game, and you're like, 'This is really good stuff, too, and really hard to defend.'"
Knowing that, Hafley formed a staff that can blend the two. Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti served as the quarterbacks for the Rams, Giants and Packers since 2012. Defensive coordinator Tem Lukabu was the linebackers coach for the Bengals in 2019.
It was not an intentional move to bring all that NFL experience. It's just what Hafley thought was best for the program.
"It's not so much that I went out and looked for NFL guys, but these are the guys I've been around," Hafley said. "These are the guys I trust. These are the guys that I know will do a great job teaching these student athletes and creating the energy."
Hafley's philosophy does not sound all that different than the approach of Ryan Day, who took over for Urban Meyer at Ohio State last season and led the Buckeyes to a 13-1 record, Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff berth.
In Columbus, Hafley learned another big lesson. He watched the development and trust-building in the weight room under strength coach Mickey Marotti, then he took Marotti's suggestion and brought Phil Matusz with him from Ohio State to run the strength and conditioning program at Boston College.
With that, Hafley is also starting the Eagles' version of "Real Life Wednesdays," an initiative under Meyer that gave players experiences from successful business leaders in the community that opened internship and job opportunities after football.
"Our school is built for 'Real Life Wednesday,'" Hafley said. "I want to take a new whole spin. I want the guys who come back to be alumni. I'm trying to connect the alumni as much as I can."
For now, Hafley is ready to start his first round of spring practices. Boston College won seven games in five of the last seven seasons and is a bowl regular, but the Eagles are 1-4 in bowl games in that stretch. They have not finished better than .500 in ACC play since 2009.
That left Hafley asking three questions about the spring.
"How are we going to practice? How tough are we going to be? How are we going to compete?" Hafley said before adding one more. "Then, how much are we going to love one another? Those things are everything to me."
Of the new coaching hires, Hafley did not get the most attention. That's reserved for coaches such as Ole Miss' Lane Kiffin and Mississippi State's Mike Leach. Hafley, however, seems to have a plan that could stick at a place that has been waiting a long time for success.
"I'm not sure if it's the perfect place, but BC is a great fit for me and what we want to do," Hafley said. "That's one of the reasons why I love this opportunity so much, because it meshes so well with me, my beliefs and everything that I've always thought about when it comes to being a head coach."