Each time he left a lecture hall the past three years, class remained in session for Boston College quarterback Chris Crane. His education simply moved from the classroom to the film room.
The subject matter was how to run an offense and lead a team to victory. The professor was Matt Ryan, who provided a textbook example of how a quarterback can make the most of his talent.
"The biggest thing I learned wasn't necessarily how you play in games but how you prepare for them,'' Crane said. "Matt was one of those people who studied the opposing team before every game and practiced every practice like it really meant something. I learned you can never take a day off because you'll never get it back. Each throw and each rep are crucial. One mistake in a season can really damage everything you're going for."
Boston College fans are about to find out how closely Crane was paying attention. Crane, a fifth-year senior from Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the front-runner to replace Ryan, who almost certainly will be the first quarterback taken in the NFL Draft.
History suggests the transition will force Boston College to take a step back. Ryan was the most famous player to suit up for the Eagles since Doug Flutie won the Heisman in 1984. After going 10-2 and finishing fifth in the Associated Press poll during Flutie's final season, the Eagles went 4-8 in 1985.
But the guy who had the unenviable task of replacing Flutie believes Crane should have an easier time. Shawn Halloran, who visited Boston College during spring practice, pointed out that the 6-foot-4 Crane and the 6-5 Ryan have similar styles.
That wasn't the case two decades ago when Halloran stepped in for Flutie. Halloran bounced back from his 1985 disappointment and led the Eagles to a 9-3 record his final season, but Boston College first endured a year of growing pains while learning to live without Flutie's Houdini-esque exploits.
"We were totally different types of quarterbacks," said Halloran, now an assistant at Yale. "Doug was mobile, short and had real good arm strength, and made a lot of things happen out of nothing. I was totally different. I had the arm strength, but the offense was geared toward Doug's abilities. It took a year to tweak it so it was geared to the quarterbacks who were in the program. I think fans expected the same cat-out-of-a-hat stuff Doug would pull out. It just wasn't the makeup of my style of play or the other quarterbacks in the program.
"I think it's going to be a little different this time in that you're going to see another (tall) quarterback come out of BC who has mobility and escapability and can move out of the pocket. That's what Matt was able to do. It's not going to be a big difference in the style of play and in what they call offensively. You're looking at two kids who are similar in terms of arm strength and footwork."
Boston College coach Jeff Jagodzinki agrees that Crane can help the program withstand Ryan's departure. Crane's seniority gives him an edge over junior college transfer Codi Boek and redshirt freshmen Dominique Davis and Chris Johnson.
STEPPING IN THEIR SHOES
Boston College quarterback Chris Crane will have large shoes to fill when he steps in for Matt Ryan this fall, but recent history indicates teams can withstand the departure of a star quarterback. Here's a look at how teams have fared the past decade after losing the first quarterback taken in the previous spring's NFL Draft. An asterisk denotes a national-title team.
"I'm excited about him," Jagodzinski said. "We're going to have to use him a little bit differently. I don't want to throw the ball 50 times a game like we did last year, but Chris' mobility and his ability to make plays on the run are going to be big factors for us this year."
Boston College didn't throw the ball quite that often last season, but Jagodzinski's exaggeration wasn't far off the mark. The Eagles attempted 47 passes per game and threw the ball more than 60 percent of the time in '07.
That emphasis on the passing game helped Ryan set single-season ACC records in completions (388) and passing yards (4,507), but his contributions went beyond mere numbers. The Eagles always knew they had a chance to win as long as Ryan had the ball in his hands. Ryan backed up that faith by throwing two touchdown passes amid a driving rain in the final 2½ minutes of a 14-10 victory at Virginia Tech.
Crane hasn't delivered that kind of signature moment. His only career start came two years ago, when he went 17 of 26 for 142 yards with a touchdown pass and an interception in a 41-0 rout of Buffalo.
Now that he's about to inherit a much larger responsibility, Crane has spent the past few months trying to mimic Ryan's leadership skills.
"I took a more vocal role," Crane said. "Previously Matt was the one always telling people they need to work harder and do a good job. I learned from that. I just told people basically where they needed to be, what time they needed to be there and just made sure everything went as smoothly as possible."
The change was obvious to Jeff Boger, who coached Crane at Trinity High School. Boger watched Boston College's scrimmage last weekend and noticed that Crane didn't hesitate to offer feedback to his receivers between snaps. "They're used to that kind of vocal leadership with Matt," Boger said. "He had that fiery attitude and led with his voice. One thing I was pleased to see (last weekend) was that Chris was very vocal, so I don't expect there to be any falloff from Ryan leaving in that regard."
Crane still must prove he has the arm and the leadership to lead BC's offense, but there's no question he has the patience necessary for the job. He has proved that since arriving on Chestnut Hill.
The former three-star prospect was redshirted in 2004, then spent the next three seasons backing up Ryan. The situation proved particularly frustrating in 2006, when Ryan injured his left ankle early in the season.
For most of the year, Crane led the first-team offense in practice during the week while the Eagles wondered whether Ryan would be healthy enough to play. Almost every week, Crane ended up spending his Saturday on the sideline watching Ryan run the team.
No matter how much the situation might have bothered him, Crane never seriously considered transferring. "I'd made the decision and I was going to stick with it," he said. "The best things come to those who wait."
Crane didn't need to wait four years to earn a starting job to learn the value of patience. The people who know him best say he's always possessed that virtue.
RUNNING ON EMPTY?
Boston College coach Jeff Jagodzinski said the Eagles probably wouldn't throw the ball quite as often this season with Matt Ryan having moved on, but their lack of depth at tailback could force them to emphasize the passing game again. Boston College doesn't return any tailbacks who carried the ball last season. These were the top three tailbacks on BC's depth chart in the Eagles' spring prospectus:
The skinny: This senior hasn't carried the ball in his college career.
"You see patience in how he thinks through problems," said Crane's father, also named Chris Crane. "He's very confident. The patience and confidence was what you saw there. It doesn't mean he wasn't frustrated (about not starting). But, honestly, he knew that was the thing to do, to wait his turn."
And while the Flutie-to-Halloran transition indicates BC might struggle this season, college football also offers more recent examples of how patience can pay off. D.J. Shockley backed up record-setting quarterback David Greene before finally becoming Georgia's starter as a fifth-year senior. Shockley capitalized on his long-awaited opportunity by leading the Bulldogs to the Southeastern Conference title in 2005.
LSU's Matt Flynn provided further evidence last year that the experience of a fifth-year senior can help a team withstand the loss of a premier quarterback. Nine months after former teammate JaMarcus Russell was taken with the first overall pick in the NFL Draft, Flynn led the Tigers to a national title as a fifth-year senior.
Nobody's predicting conference titles or national championships for Boston College this season, and Crane still faces quite a burden as he steps in for one of the greatest players in school history. As he attempts to fill Ryan's shoes, Crane once again is hoping to benefit from the experience of his predecessor.
"There's certainly a lot of pressure because it's a tough act to follow," Crane said. "But I got to see Matt perform under a whole lot of pressure because a lot of people were talking about the Heisman and the ACC championship halfway through the season. A lot of media pressure was on him – a lot more than will ever be on me – and I got to see how he handled it and how well he did with it. It makes this upcoming season not so ominous for me.
"I don't know what people are expecting, but I hope I can exceed those expectations."