Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have a song called “The Waiting” which has the lyrics, “The waiting is the hardest part,” which can perfectly sum up the motto of the 2017 season for Liberty University. As I detailed in my Fan Post earlier in the summer, there isn’t much for Liberty to accomplish from a postseason point of view in 2017. As such, they are just trying to get through to 2018 where they will be new members of the Football Bowl Subdivision. Since they haven’t figured out time travel yet, we still have 2017 to make it through and so here we go with the preview for the Flames’ season.
Beginning with the offense, Liberty returns their promising quarterback in true sophomore, and former three-star recruit (per 247 Sports), Stephen “Buckshot” Calvert. After starting the season behind the more rushing-oriented Stephon Masha, who has since transferred, Calvert brought in a breath of fresh air to the offense and became the regular starter for the fifth game of the season against Robert Morris. With Buckshot as the starter, the Flames won the next five games and scored under 23 only once during their next six games. Calvert pro-style quarterbacking improved over Masha’s 48.5% completion percentage and 81.95% efficiency rating to 57.3% and 131.18%, respectively. Big things are expected of Calvert during his time in Lynchburg.
Helping Calvert out is the top three rushers from last year who combined for 1,733 yards rushing in 2016: redshirt seniors Carrington Mosley and Todd Macon along with redshirt sophomore and Lynchburg native Frankie Hickson. This is an experienced group who should help anchor the young quarterback and the rest of the offense.
The receivers have big shoes to fill as leading receiver Dante’ Shells graduated and the team loses his 43 receptions, 655 yards, and eight touchdowns. In addition, the third and fifth leading receivers, Zac Parker and Kendall Couamin (tight end), also graduated and won’t be around. With all the available targets to replace, that leaves lots of opportunities for new players to step up. Wide receivers B.J. Farrow (redshirt junior) and Anton Gandy-Golden lead the way as the top producers returning and provide Calvert two tall, athletic targets to get the ball to. At 6’2” and 6’4”, these receivers provide room for error and mismatches against the competition. There are plenty of receivers on the team, the majority above 6’ tall, and most inexperienced.
Whether it is scheme or lack of talent, Liberty has really underutilized the tight end position in the past. We’ll see if that continues this season as Liberty has to replace the previously mentioned Couamin. The Flames have seven tight ends on the roster but only one, Zac Foutz, is a sophomore (redshirted). Foutz made his solo catch in 2016 count as it was for a one-yard touchdown but the team will need much more production from the group in 2017. Fullback Thomas Kennedy returns for his senior year but the position is rarely used in coach Turner Gill’s offense.
To wrap up the offense, the offensive line was the real weakness last season; you could say it was offensive. Opponents scored 30 sacks for a loss of 208 yards with a total of 333 passing attempts on the season. In addition, Flames runners lost 72 yards on 35 tackles for a loss. The two stats combined for six tackles behind the line per game for the offense, an abysmal statistic. Comparatively speaking, Liberty’s defense earned 14 sacks and another 41 tackles for a loss, combining for 170 yards lost. Luckily, or unluckily depending upon how you look at it, the unit returns four of the starters on last year’s squad: redshirt sophomores Dontae Duff and Sam Isaacson and redshirt juniors Julio Lozano and James Passmore. Another lineman who played a key role before injury was redshirt senior Michael Henderman.
The Flames return three of their four starters along the defensive line. The leader, junior defensive end Juwan Wells, is the star of the defense. Wells led the team in tackles (79), tackles for a loss (11), and sacks (5.5) in 2016 and has since been voted to the STATS FCS All-America Third Team. Tolen Avery (redshirt junior) and Dia’Vante Brown (redshirt senior) represent the other returners, which shows a strong group of upperclassmen. The last spot is up for grabs in the middle of the line and the 345 pound redshirt junior, Gregg Storey should have a leg up in the competition.
Linebacker is the yang to the defensive line’s ying. The group has to replace the top two linebackers from a group that mostly played two at a time in the nickel packages. The top returner is redshirt junior Lucas Irons who finished last season with 27 tackles in 10 games and one start. Joining Irons is redshirt sophomore Jaylyn McKinney who had 20 tackles (one for a loss). There are plenty of options as the team has nine linebackers on the team. Perhaps the biggest boost to the team is Solomon McGinty moving from safety to play linebacker after being the fourth-highest leading tackler in 2016 and starting 10 of 11 games.
Losing McGinty to the linebackers feels like robbing Peter to give to Paul. Alpha Jalloh graduated and took 11 starts, 49 tackles, one interception, and three fumble recoveries with him. Redshirt junior Corbin Jackson remains the starter from 2016. Joining him will be sophomore Brandon Tillmon who was able to make 29 tackles and two for a loss in limited time (one start in ten games) during 2016. The defense looks like it could be soft up the middle with a lack of experience at linebacker and a safety position.
Rounding out the secondary is the cornerbacks. Chris Turner is back for his redshirt junior season and was second on the team with three interceptions and first with 11 pass breakups. The leader in interceptions, Tyrin Holloway, is not back with the team and should be replaced by Jeremy Peters (junior). There are plenty of options here allowing the chance for someone to step up. My money would be on one of the upperclassmen Khaleel Carrington (senior), Ryan Taylor (senior), or Cameron Jones (junior).
The special teams look to be a strength on the squad as sophomore kicker Alex Probert and redshirt senior longsnapper Hunter Winstead were the two other Flames nominated to the STATS FCS Preseason All America Team. Winstead earned second team honors while Probert earned third team, respectively. Oddly, Probert only missed kicks between 30 and 39 yards last season; he nailed his 10 kicks outside that range, including six above 40 yards, but was only 5-9 within the 30’s for a total field goal percentage of 78.9% (15-19). He had one blocked and was 33-35 on point after attempts. Redshirt senior Trey Turner returns to punt and averaged 41 yards per punt in 2016. Liberty’s punt return squad only averaged 6.9 yards per return compared to allowing opponents 7.5 yards; Liberty did not score a touchdown on punts but allowed one. The script was flipped for kick offs as Liberty outgained opponents 23 yards per return to 19.4 yards and had one touchdown to opponents’ zero. B.J. Farrow and Frankie Hickson are back and capable of returning punts and kicks if they are the best options.
Leading the Flames is head coach Turner Gill. You may recognize him from his time as head coach of the Buffalo Bulls and turning them into conference contenders from the perennial doormat. He spent four years there before getting a big break at Kansas where he spent two years installing his new system and building the team his way before getting fired and seeing the fruits of his labors. Liberty immediately hired him and making a splash hire despite what happened at Kansas. Coach Gill spent the next three years building a the team in the image of how he saw fit and improved the squad each year, from a 6-5 start in 2012, to 8-4 in 2013, and finally to the promised land of Liberty’s first playoff game in 2014 and subsequent first playoff win and a final 9-5 record. Expectations were sky-high in 2015 as the majority of the team returned and nearly the whole team was Gill’s recruits. 2015 fell flat as Liberty went 6-5 and had no consistency as it beat FBS teams but lost to programs it shouldn’t have. 2016 had more of the same as Gill’s team went 6-5 and lost nearly every non-conference game. The Flames have only not finished tied for first place once in Gill’s tenure (2015, tied for third), but they only won the auto-bid once and always can’t seem to get out of their own way. I think it is fair to say that the fan base is ready for big things as Liberty moves to FBS and they want Gill to accomplish those things but patience is running out for him.
The schedule looks a little rocky for Liberty in 2017. Baylor and Jacksonville State will be the two toughest tests by far for the Flames. Liberty will play their former Big South Conference foes but will not be eligible to earn a conference title. Lately the conference has improved due to Coastal Carolina’s surge (prior to moving to the Sun Belt) and the emergence of Charleston Southern, but also the bottom has been much more competitive. Coastal Carolina is not on Liberty’s schedule now, and hasn’t been announced for the future either, and Charleston Southern has had their head coach poached so that will make things easier for Liberty in 2016. But I wouldn’t overlook the sleeping (and seemingly awakening) giant Kennesaw State.
With all of this information, I will say the pieces are in place for Liberty to have had a special season if they were eligible for the FCS playoffs. Special is different to everyone, so I’ll define it as this: I believe Liberty would have made the playoffs and potentially won a game or two with luck on their side if they were eligible. I think the offense should take a step forward with growth at the quarterback position and better offensive line play. The defense will be anchored by the four linemen, which allows for pressure to be relieved on the inexperienced linebackers who can learn as they go. The special teams won’t cost the Flames a game and could be the difference to win them a game or two. The coaching staff may feel their seats getting hot and may be extra motivated to win in 2017 and build for a strong debut in FBS for 2018. The 2017 Liberty Flames should finish 8-3 and anything less would, in my opinion, be a disappointment.