One of our teams to watch this season is the Liberty Flames. We’re expecting to see a lot from them, and so is Flames expert and sports writer for The News & Advance, Damien Sordelett. We caught up with Sordelett and got the lowdown on the coaching staff overhaul as well as Calvert as QB and the RB distribution. Catch more from Sordelett on Twitter @DamienSordelett, and check out our rankings page for more player stats.
Overall, how do you believe the offense will compare to the 2018 version?
The offense will be completely different with the coaching staff overhaul. While former offensive coordinator Joe Dailey utilized an up-tempo scheme that saw the offense average more plays per game over his three seasons calling the shots at Liberty, that speed should pale in comparison to what Hugh Freeze wants to see out of the unit in 2019. While Freeze’s teams in his final three seasons at Ole Miss averaged less than 76 plays per game, the Rebels were known for quick-strike offenses that didn’t need many times, or much time, to find the end zone. That is the scheme and philosophy Freeze is expecting to install at Liberty, with the Flames moving away from the methodical, time-consuming drives to the lightning-quick variety that usually leaves defenses gasping for air.
However, the one drawback to Freeze’s scheme is no one on the Liberty roster played in it prior to the spring. He had to scale back the install and work on perfecting the plays that were introduced in the opening weeks of practice. That may mean seeing the speed mirror of what Dailey’s unit ran last season (averaged 83 plays per game) in the early stages of the 2019 season while the players gain a firm grasp of the system and concepts.
What do you expect from the QB position in 2019?
Buckshot Calvert, who has started every game as Liberty’s quarterback since the fifth game of the 2016 season, is entrenched as the starter heading into 2019. He received all of the first-team snaps during practice and Freeze is expected to tailor the offense around Calvert, who is a traditional pocket passer.
Freeze’s offenses were successful at Ole Miss when he had a mobile quarterback who ran it as well as he threw it. Freeze believes he has that in backup Johnathan Bennett, a true freshman who enrolled early for the spring semester and shined in the spring game with 186 yards on 9-of-15 passing. Bennett’s deep ball improved tremendously during the spring, which will allow him to see playing time this season as a change-of-pace option to Calvert.
How do you see the workload at RB being distributed?
It is tough to judge exactly how the workload will be distributed with two of the team’s better running backs missing most, if not all, of the spring practices. Leading rusher Frankie Hickson had left knee surgery over the winter and missed all of spring. He did participate in light walkthroughs, but wasn’t able to gain a full appreciation for the speed of the offense. The same can be said for Peytton Pickett, who suited up for about one week of practice and then was injured in the spring game and did not play in the second half. Those two backs have the most experience on the team and are expected to be contenders for playing time in the fall.
Joshua Mack and Frank Boyd received the bulk of the first-team reps during the spring. Mack was the Football Championship Subdivision’s leading rusher in 2017 at Maine before electing to transfer to Liberty, while Boyd averaged 5.4 yards per game in his eight appearances. Both had good spring games, combining to rush for 171 yards on 23 carries.
Troy Henderson, a redshirt freshman, and true freshman Treon Sibley are electric backs who could be utilized on the perimeter. (Sibley is a converted wide receiver.)
How does the offensive line compare to the 2018 group?
The line returns four starters (Ethan Crawford, Thomas Sargeant, Dontae Duff and Tristan Schultz) and two backups (Damian Bounds and Sam Isaacson) who received considerable playing time last season. Schultz is shifting over to left tackle to replace Julio Lozano, and Isaacson is expected to start at right tackle. Crawford missed all of the spring with an undisclosed injury, allowing Bounds to receive the bulk of the snaps with the first-string unit. The only offensive lineman signed during the offseason, Maisen Knight, is likely expected to battle for playing time at left tackle after he played at Ventura College last season.
What do you think the distribution will be to the WR/TE's?
Probably similar to what it was in 2018.
The Liberty tight ends posted six catches for 80 yards in the entire 2017 season, but emerged in the offense to finish with 30 catches for 369 yards and two scores. The wide receivers continued to dominate in the passing game with 187 catches, 2,599 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Freeze has said he plans on carrying four tight ends during the season (two pass catches, two who line up on the line of scrimmage), and the four who emerged during the spring were Johnny Huntley, Chris Barrett, Jerome Jackson and Mason Yost.
Huntley is a converted wide receiver and a strong candidate to line up wide with Barrett. Both have good speed for their size and were reliable targets for the quarterbacks in the spring game with six catches for 78 yards.
Jackson and Yost are two of the more physical tight ends, and both are good pass catchers as well. Yost redshirted last season, while Jackson posted only one catch in 2018.
Zac Foutz, who led all tight ends in receiving yards last season with 134, dealt with a pair of injuries in the spring.
Antonio Gandy-Golden should lead the team in receptions and receiving yards for a third straight season. DJ Stubbs and Damian King are expected to again be vitale options in the slot, especially Stubbs who had 50 catches as a sophomore.
For our dynasty owners, who are some young players that stand out as future breakout performers?
The first name that comes to mind is defensive end Austin Lewis. The 6-foot-6 sophomore was named a freshman All-American by Phil Steele Publications and should build off his 6.5-TFL, 3.5-sack freshman season. Lewis has added muscle to his frame and is slated to start opposite of Jessie Lemonier at ends.
Bennett, at quarterback, is another name who will stand out in the future. And I’d bank on Stubbs during his final two seasons. He played quarterback in high school, so he has the option to throw it, as well. (He threw a 65-yard touchdown pass in the spring game.) Stubbs’ value, though, is through his play in the slot, and that position is expected to receive plenty of touches in Freeze’s offense.
Mack has two seasons of eligibility remaining and has the talent to be an everydown back for the Flames.