Breaking news, rankings, predictions and analysis all in one place.

College Football Preview 2021: 21. Liberty Flames

Malik Willis, Liberty


21. Liberty Flames

With Malik Willis once again at the controls of the offense and a favorable schedule, the Flames win at least 10 games

2020 Outlook
Liberty was one of the great stories of the shortened 2020 season, winning ten games and beating a pair of ACC foes in Syracuse and Virginia Tech. They came agonizingly close to a perfect season but fell just short to a strong NC State team in late November. The Flames still recovered to end the year in a big way, pulling off an upset over previously undefeated Coastal Carolina in the Cure Bowl. They finished ranked No. 17 in the AP Poll, their first ever Top 25 finish as an FBS program. There was some thought that all the success may result in big-name suitors coming to Lynchburg and stealing away head coach Hugh Freeze, but he decided to stay put. With a bunch of pieces back heading into 2021, it may end up being a great decision.

2021 Outlook
Offense: Malik Willis transferred to Liberty prior to the 2019 season from Auburn and after sitting out a year, he exploded onto the scene last fall. He led the team in passing as well as rushing, totaling over 3,000 yards of total offense and 34 touchdowns. He received some late-round NFL Draft attention but instead decided to come back, and is still only technically a junior. Willis would have to put up truly insane numbers for a Liberty QB to gain Heisman consideration, but don't be surprised if he gets some looks.

The star power of Willis often overshadows the rest of this Flames offense, but he's not the only reason they averaged 38 points per game, 16th nationally. Senior tailback Joshua Mack is one of the most underrated anywhere in the nation, finishing with 797 yards and four touchdowns in 2020. Mack will still be the feature guy, but don't be surprised if Liberty also utilizes former Utah transfer T.J. Green. Although primarily a backup during his time in Salt Lake City, Green appeared in 25 games for the Utes.

Despite operating without Antonio Gandy-Golden, who had two consecutive seasons of 1,000 receiving yards, Liberty got quality production from the receiver position last season. Veteran D.J. Stubbs is back as the top returning option, totaling 523 yards on 38 catches a year ago. Expect a healthy Noah Frith and redshirt freshman Demario Douglas to also feature heavily on the perimeter. It's a receiver group without a real headliner, but plenty of quality options.

Tight end is also a deep room for the Flames, with senior Johnny Huntley the likely starter. He went over 200 yards in receiving in 2020 and will look to grow into a more effective red zone target. Also back is junior Jerome Jackson, a good blocker and decent pass-catcher.

Willis alone is dangerous enough, but the fact Liberty returns every single starting offensive linemen makes him even more potent. This is an offensive line with three seniors leading the charge, tackle Tristan Schultz, guard Damian Bounds, and center Thomas Sargeant. Right tackle Cooper McCaw is another guy that has played a ton of snaps in his time in Lynchburg.

Freeze came to Liberty with a dark past, but also a reputation as a superb offensive mind. His work, along with co-offensive coordinators Maurice Harris and Kent Austin, has developed Liberty's offense into one of the most exciting anywhere in college football. Willis alone is worth the price of admission and he has plenty of important pieces back along with him. It wouldn't be shocking to see this group finish as a Top 10 offense, both in scoring and total yardage.

Defense: Although the Liberty defense doesn't have a star like Willis on this side of the ball, it was a group that also put up strong numbers throughout the impressive 2020 campaign. Ten starters now return, including most of a secondary that was ranked 12th nationally in pass defense.

The defensive line is deep and talented, with two consistent pieces off the edge in sophomore TreShaun Clark and junior Durrell Johnson. Johnson, a former JUCO product, led the Flames with eight sacks last fall and may be even better this season. He had never played defensive end prior to 2020, spending most of his time at linebacker and safety, but acclimated extremely well to the position. Don't be surprised to see freshman Stephen Sings V also feature heavily. He played in just four games last season so he was able to essentially play a "free" year, but still managed 2.5 sacks.

The linebacker corps in this 4-2-5 defense loses a pretty big name in Anthony Butler, who finished the year second on the team in tackles. However, weak-side linebacker Aaron Pierre returns, and the staff appears high on the likely replacement for Butler, Rashaad Harding. Harding, yet another former transfer, this time from Louisiana-Monroe totaled over 100 tackles in three seasons for the Warhawks.

After a streaky 2019, Liberty's secondary play was perhaps the most surprising aspect of the entire team. It was one of the best anywhere in the nation last fall and brings back plenty of experience for 2021. The name to watch is "Rover" Javon Scruggs, the top tackler on the team in 2020. Scruggs can do about anything the defense needs and also showed an ability to create the big plays, forcing three fumbles. At cornerback, the Flames return sophomore Chris Megginson and are likely to usher in UTEP transplant Duron Lowe. Megginson played numerous positions last season, but seems most natural at corner. 

The safety position is so loaded that it wouldn't be shocking if there's real competition among returning starters for the starting jobs in '21. Junior Marcus Haskins and senior Cedric Stone are the top returning commodities, but keep an eye on Skyler Thomas. Thomas comes from Washington State and can play multiple positions, ranging from strong safety to outside linebacker.

Defensive coordinator Scott Symons, who also serves as the team's safeties coach, should have a fun time with so much proven talent back. Not only is there experience and playmaking throughout the group, but also a ton of depth, which should be huge late in the year when the Flames gear up for a tough November slate of games.

Special Teams: Kicker Alex Barbir was inconsistent last season, going 13 of 20 on field goals, but showed real clutch abilities by knocking down two game-winning field goals. He has potential to be a difference-maker at the position, but has to show he can be less streaky. Junior Aidan Alves is back at punter and the return game has a real weapon in backup running back Shedro Louis.

Bottom Line: His shady past aside, there's no denying how tremendous of a job Hugh Freeze has done in two seasons with Liberty. He built on a nice 8-5 debut by going 10-1 last season and showed the program has the pieces in place to legitimately go toe-to-toe with Power Five programs. Don't expect the momentum to stop anytime soon, as the talent and experience back for 2021 indicates it will be another highly successful campaign. The Flames could seriously start 9-0 before they hit a November stretch that includes a road trip to Ole Miss and home games against Louisiana-Lafayette and Army. With another 9-10 regular season wins being a real possibility, Liberty is hoping they can play their way into an even better bowl game than the Cure Bowl, which they've now won in consecutive years.

Further Breakdown
Team Projections
Projected Record: 10-2
Offensive MVP: QB Malik Willis
Defensive MVP: S Javon Scruggs
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Noah Frith
Impact Freshman: LB Kaci Seegars

Recruiting Breakdown
Freeze's shady and, frankly illegal, recruiting practices at Ole Miss make it hard to judge his recruiting prowess but there's no denying he's elevated the talent level at Liberty in a big way. The Flames have focused heavily on the transfer market but they've still shown the ability to bring in solid recruiting classes for a program of their status. Edge rusher Khristian Zachary is the big name for the 2021 Class, a high three-star prospect out of Georgia. He probably won't see much playing time with this deep defensive line, but you never know. JUCO product Bryce Pierre out of Chaffey College was a nice find and the staff also brought in a potential long-term placement for Willis at quarterback in 6'6" gunslinger Nate Hampton.

Five-Year Trend
(2016 & 2017 As FCS Program, Member of Big South Conference)

No comments:

Theme images by LUGO. Powered by Blogger.