Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe

Herzlich leader of the pack

Linebacker like a coach on field

MARK HERZLICH Helps fill void from Toal MARK HERZLICH Helps fill void from Toal

Frank Spaziani recognized the trait right away, almost from the first time he saw Mark Herzlich as a true freshman last season, adapting to the schemes the Boston College defensive coordinator kept throwing at his players.

But it was more than just grasping the defensive sets for the freshman linebacker from Wayne, Pa. It was the way he did it, what he saw beyond the calls Spaziani made.

"He gets it," said Spaziani. "He's thinks like a coach."

For Herzlich, one of the key parts in a unit that has endured a series of injuries with hardly a flinch, it was a compliment of the highest order. In his mind, he was more than a linebacker, part of a group that has helped the Eagles through four games and four wins. He has been thinking like a coach, acting like one, giving instructions, pep talks, words of encouragement to coaches and players as the Eagles have soared through the first month of the season without a major misstep heading into tomorrow's game against the University of Massachusetts.

"That makes me feel good he said that," said Herzlich, who has helped the Eagles fill the void created when Brian Toal, regarded as one of the leaders of a veteran group of linebackers, opted to take a medical redshirt season. "Because I do feel I can be a coach on the field. I feel I'm a player's player, but I also feel I'm a coach's player. I like to be in the coach's mind, thinking about what the other team is doing. There's not a moment in the game when I'm not paying attention to what is going on on the field. There are no coaches on the field, so if some guy missed an assignment, I can coach him up. I want to know all the positions on the field."

It has always been that way for the kid from the Main Line of Philadelphia who had it figured out early. Figured out in football, figured out in life. Certainly, the opportunity was there. Growing up in Wayne, 30 minutes west of Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, gave Herzlich the chance to chase whatever dream he wanted. His parents, Sandon and Barbara, had both graduated from Wesleyan College in Connecticut. Barbara was an All-American in three sports. There was no question about Herzlich being given the opportunity.

It was only a question of where. He was a linebacker-fullback at Conestoga High School and, not surprisingly, a Penn State fan.

Problem was that Penn State wasn't as big a fan of Herzlich, Conestoga's MVP for three straight seasons. Maybe that's too harsh. "They recruited me early," said Herzlich, "but they weren't sure if I was quick enough to play linebacker. I was pretty big [255 pounds], so they wanted me to come to their camp."

By the end of his junior year, Herzlich wasn't sure, either. He had offers from schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, and Southeastern Conference. He took a look at Wesleyan to satisfy his parents, but he had his sights on a faster lane than Division 3.

He had a friend who had gone to Virginia, which was also interested in him. In the summer between his junior and senior years, he took a road trip to UVA.

"I loved the place," Herzlich said. "It was one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. When they called and offered, I accepted."

The commitment was verbal - nothing in recruiting is official until national letter of intent day in February. But Herzlich felt sure he had made the right choice.

Until he took his official visit. "I didn't get the same feeling I was hoping for," he said. "I was just another commitment to them. When I went down there and asked to talk to some coaches and people, they kind of blew me off. Their attitude was, 'We've got him; we don't need to talk to him anymore.' "

Herzlich went home pondering his options. He had plenty of choices. Duke, North Carolina, Maryland, Louisville, Michigan State, and Wisconsin all had expressed strong interest. So had BC. "I was looking for the same feeling [from Virginia] that the coaches from Boston College had given me," said Herzlich. "I didn't get it. So I called BC up and asked if they were still interested."

They were - particularly linebackers coach Billy McGovern, who saw added depth for his unit. "Once I made my official visit, I knew this was the place for me," said Herzlich.

Herzlich played enough right away that he made the All-ACC freshman team. He came into this season wanting to play more. When Toal decided to take a full year to rehabilitate a surgically repaired shoulder, Herzlich saw an opportunity to move up the depth chart. "I wanted to fill the gap," said Herzlich, who along with Robert Francois has been doing more than an adequate job of filling Toal's role.

"Herzlich might be the scariest one of them all," said UMass coach Don Brown in discussing the BC defense and the linebacker corps, which goes six deep.

Herzlich says he is merely filling a role. "I'm sharing time with Robert and we complement each other," said Herzlich, who has slimmed down to 233 pounds. "We're sharing time equally."

Make no mistake, Herzlich is going to get as much playing time as he wants. He seems to get better each game, becoming more of a presence. It has been that way since Herzlich moved in as a starter in the second game of his sophomore year in high school.

"I got pushed right in there because the starter was hurt," he said. "I became the play-caller right then and there. I had confidence doing it. I had the mental ability to learn the defense and take charge. It turned me into a leader. It's one of my attributes. I love getting guys going."

Herzlich has carried that trait into college. Last week against Army, a game the Eagles won without playing their best, Herzlich assessed the situation on the sideline as well as the field.

"I saw Taji [cornerback Taji Morris]," he said. "He wasn't smiling. I said to him, 'Taji, you've got to get that pretty face smiling.' I like to get guys going. I like to get guys to try their hardest."

He even works on the coaches. He noticed the lack of a smile on defensive line coach Jeff Comissiong's face. "I put my arm around him and said, 'Coach, we're still winning,' " said Herzlich, who had six tackles and his first interception of the season against Army.

Herzlich says the fast start is nice, but he is assuming nothing, regardless of the opponent.

"We watched film of [UMass] on Sunday," he said. "They can hit. They're sluggers."

It is a matter, says Herzlich, of following Spaziani's one-step-at-a-time philosophy.

"Coach Spaz talks about coupons," said Herzlich. "If you get enough coupons, it's like going down to [the boardwalk on] the Jersey shore - you can get that boom box on the top shelf. That's the philosophy we need. To get them one game at a time. It doesn't matter who we play."

More from