The Big South Conference concludes its daily preview of each football team in the reverse order of the predicted order of finish in the Conference standings. Today: Liberty University, which has voted as the preseason favorite for the fifth consecutive season. The Flames open the season at FBS-member North Carolina State Saturday, Sept. 3 at 6:00pm on ESP3.com.
The Quest Continues for the Liberty football program, as they look to venture into uncharted waters during the upcoming 2011 season. Liberty is coming off the most heralded four-year run in program history. The Flames posted three 8-3 seasons and a 10-2 record in 2008, giving Liberty a 34-11 mark during that time span.
Along the way, Liberty claimed four Big South Conference titles and finished three out of the four years ranked inside the final Top 25 FCS national rankings. With those accomplishments in their rearview mirror, the Flames enter the upcoming season with even higher goals in their sites. The 2011 version of the Liberty Flames football program will be looking to become the first program in League history to claim five-straight Big South titles and capture the program's first-ever bid to the NCAA FCS Playoffs, as The Quest Continues in 2011.
Once again, one of the strengths of Liberty's program for the upcoming 2011 season will be its offense. The Flames return eight of 12 players who started in various roles during the 2010 season, one that saw Liberty finish in the upper echelon of FCS offenses. En route to an 8-3 record, the Flames finished the year by averaging 36.45 points per game, a figure that ranked No. 3 nationally in scoring offense. In fact, the Flames have finished inside the Top 20 in FCS offense the last four years, including three out of the four years ranking third or better.
"Once again, we put together an outstanding season statistically in 2010," stated head coach Danny Rocco. "We obviously don't want to make too many dramatic changes from something that has been successful, but our offense does have a few areas we need to focus on this spring."
Seven of the eight previously mentioned starters are skill position players, giving the Flames great depth in an offense that has proven to be potent. However, the area of focus for Liberty this past spring was developing its talent on the offensive line, a segment that returns only one starter from the previous season.
QUARTERBACKS - For the second year in a row, Liberty returns the reigning Big South Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback Mike Brown. The senior had an outstanding 2010 season, one that landed him a spot on the Walter Payton Award watch list. Brown finished 2010 ranked No. 1 in the country in total offense, averaging 346.36 total offensive yards per game. He was Liberty's leading rusher and passer, as he ran for 854 yards and passed for another 2,956 yards. He was responsible for 32 of the team's 47 touchdowns (68.1 percent) and finished his season ranked No. 4 nationally in points responsible for (17.45 per game).
His 3,810 total offensive yards shattered Liberty's previous record of 3,127 yards set by Phil Basso in 1984. Brown also finished the year ranked No. 8 in passing yards per game (268.73), No. 11 in total passing yards and No. 7 in passing efficiency (149.63). The Flames also return Tyler Brennan, a junior who played in all 11 games in 2010. With Brennan in the game, which Rocco hopes to do even more in 2011, the Flames were able to be more versatile and use Brown's athleticism as a running back or wide receiver option.
Liberty also has two underclassmen quarterbacks who give this position great depth in Brian Hudson, a player that Rocco says is "emerging", and Gabe Henderson. Henderson spent most of last year as a wideout option, catching 10 passes for 127 yards as a true freshman. This spring, Henderson spent more workout time with the quarterbacks, following a very similar career path that has led Brown to this position's starting spot.
WIDE RECEIVERS - Chris Summers had a breakout season in 2010, one that landed him on multiple All-America teams. The senior set new program standards with 1,081 receiving yards and 15 receiving touchdowns, doing all this in 10 games. The standout suffered an injury in the Coastal Carolina contest that kept him from playing in the season finale against Stony Brook. B.J. Hayes, a versatile player for the Flames at slot receiver, earned second-team All-Conference honors in 2010, as he finished with 546 receiving yards and one touchdown.
With Summers being out of the line-up at Williams Stadium on Nov. 20 against Stony Brook, Pat Kelly had a chance to showcase his talents. The junior set a new program and Big South single-game record with 235 receiving yards and two scores, allowing the emerging outside receiver to finish 2010 second on the team with 635 receiving yards and four scoring receptions.
Ervin Garner used the spring training season to get back into his playing shape after missing five games in 2010 due to an injury. When he was in the line-up for Rocco, Garner showed he could be a top receiver, spotlighted by a 106-yard, one-touchdown performance at Robert Morris. Just prior to August training camp last year, wide receiver Jimmy Eden was sidelined and the speedy receiver missed the entire season following complications from an appendix surgery. He tried to make a comeback during the spring, but eventually had to retire from the sport.
With Eden out of the picture, Rocco made a roster adjustment following the spring season, moving Elliot Dutra from fullback to wide receiver. The redshirt sophomore impressed the coaching staff during the spring and could make an immediate impact in 2011.
Two additional players that Rocco and his coaching staff will be watching this fall will be Greg Pratt and Chase Barnett. Pratt, a transfer from Troy, saw minimal action in his first year with the program in 2010, but Rocco says he has "great speed and I'm hoping he shows well this fall." With the depth at running back for Liberty this upcoming season, the coaching staff is going to give Barnett a look at wide receiver this fall. He played in five games in 2010, rushing for 141 yards and a touchdown.
RUNNING BACKS - Last season, the Flames came into 2010 with no legitimate returning experience at running back. Korrey Davis had redshirted the year prior after transferring from Massachusetts, plus Aldreakis Allen had left the school and was no longer with the team. SirChauncey Holloway did finish the season with seven rushing touchdowns, but only carried the ball 54 times in eight games.
According to Rocco, Holloway has had a "magnificent offseason," and he looks more physical and strong. As the Flames' primary rushing option in 2010, outside of quarterback Mike Brown, Holloway finished last year rushing for 524 yards and 10 touchdowns. In his first year with the program, Davis rushed 58 times for 201 yards and one touchdown. Allen returns to the program, as he reenrolled at Liberty during last spring semester and Rocco says he "has a chance to be very good, as he has great focus and a renewed work ethic." Allen pushed himself forward as a running back frontrunner in 2009, rushing for a team-best 530 yards on 118 carries, to go along with nine touchdowns.
As previously mentioned and with having all of its running backs returning for the next two years, the Flames coaching staff has moved Chase Barnett to wide receiver. However, when the 5-7 redshirt sophomore is not in the flat catching passes, he will be working out at his more familiar position as a running back. With Barnett moving to wide receiver, Liberty will look to Irwin Coleman, who has been with the program for a few years, and newcomer Desmond Rice to provide additional backup.
FULLBACK - One of the keys to Liberty's ability to successfully rush the ball for more than 2,000 yards six out of the last nine years has been the play of its fullbacks. The unsung hero position was held down by a newcomer last season, as Buffalo transfer Peter Gagliardi started all 11 games for the Flames at fullback. With Elliot Dutra moving to wide receiver during spring practice, Rocco will have to look to two newcomers to provide depth at fullback. Leo Cardenas was with the program during the spring, while Nicky Fualaau signed with Liberty during the summer.
TIGHT END - One of the keys to Rocco's offensive schemes since arriving at Liberty in 2006 has been the blocking ability of his tight ends. Until last year, Liberty's starting tight end had received first or second team All-Big South honors each year dating back to 2005. Tommy Shaver did the same "yeoman's type work" as his predecessors last year in his first full season as the starter at the position, but the rising senior did not receive the traditional Conference accolade. He did manage to catch eight passes for 104 yards in 11 games for the Flames.
Backing up Shaver and challenging for playing time this spring will be Justin Gunn and Brandon Apon, two players who have started to develop inside the program. Gunn is a former defensive lineman that moved to tight end during spring practice. Rocco has said that because of the versatility of his student-athletes, Liberty could interchange some of its tight ends and fullbacks at times during the upcoming 2011 season.
OFFENSIVE LINE - Unlike the previously mentioned five skilled positions where depth abounds, Rocco used the spring season to evaluate multiple options on the offensive line to try to find his starting give for the upcoming 2011 season. The 2010 season saw the graduation of four starters on the offensive line -- Justin Vargas (LT), Matt Camire (C), Alex Stadler (RG) and Soeren Wendland (RT). Three of the four received accolades for their efforts from the Big South, as Stadler and Vargas were first-team All-Conference honorees with Wendland getting a second-team nod.
The coaching staff made the decision to move Jay Weatherington to center after spending most of the 2010 season behind Stadler at right guard. Weatherington was one of two players to garner the program's Samkon Gado award, given annually to the most improved player during the team's annual spring workouts. A dditionally, Rocco has shifted Aaron Lundy to right guard, after he spent most of last year backing up Camire at center.
The largest battle during preseason camp was at right tackle, where Toney White and Mark Tomlin will vie for the final starting role. Several players will be looking to impress the coaching staff this spring and push for playing time, starting with D.J. Sellman and Aaron Brown.
The next group that excites Rocco when it comes to the offensive line is four freshmen that were redshirted for the 2010 season -- Mitch Hanson, Andre Mondor, Greg Ray and Kevin Widener. Mondor is slated to back up Lundy currently at right guard, while Ray, another "big body," will follow behind Malcolm Boyd at left guard. Widener, who was a tight end in high school, has been moved to center and has started to add the necessary weight and strength to play center. Finally, Hanson gives the Flames four solid newcomers and will battle for time at left tackle.
Unlike the offense that is littered with "named" players with gaudy stats in the likes of Walter Payton watch list member Mike Brown and All-America wide receiver Chris Summers, Liberty's defense remains a total team effort under Rocco. Despite leading the Big South and ranking inside Top 25 nationally in defense for the fourth time in the last five years, the Flames only had one tackler with more than 60 stops. Graduated senior linebacker Kyle O'Donnell was the lone player on Liberty's roster to rank as one of the Top 25 players in the Big South in terms of tackles per game (6.8/75 tackles).
Liberty finished the 2010 season ranked five points per game better than any other defense in the Big South and ended the season ranked No. 24 overall in the country by allowing 20.18 points per contest. Rocco's defensive schemes have excelled during the last five years due in part to the number of players the coaching staff continues to flow into the game. The rotation keeps the individual players' defensive numbers lower than most programs, but helps keep Liberty's defenders fresh and ready for the challenge of a 60-minute contest and an 11-game schedule.
Rocco also made some adjustments to his defensive coaching staff for the 2011 season, switching up roles among three of its members. Besides orchestrating Liberty's defense for the sixth year in row, defensive coordinator Tom Clark will focus his efforts as Liberty's secondary coach in 2011. With Clark taking over the secondary, Wally Ake will now work with Liberty's linebackers, while Marshall Roberts, who is Liberty's special teams coordinator, will assist Clark in the secondary.
CORNERBACKS - Liberty's most experienced group of defenders for the 2011 season will be its last line of defense, with three of its four starting defensive backs returning for their final season. Donald Manns finished the season ranked ninth on the team and third in the secondary with 34 tackles (20 solo, 14 assisted), to go along with three pass breakups.
Returning at field corner will be two-year starter KaJuan Lee, who finished the 2010 season with 12 of his 17 tackles being of the solo variety. Competing behind Lee at the field corner position will be Ron Hobby for the second year in a row. The Pittsburgh transfer finished his first season with the Flames with 11 tackles and three pass breakups. The Flames coaching staff is also excited about the development of Kenny Scott, who redshirted this past year. He is coming off an impressive winter workout session, where he posted some stellar numbers including a 4.4, 40-yard dash.
Looking to fill the vacancy left open by Manns' graduation will be Illinois transfer Walt Aiken, an All-Big Ten freshman selection for the Fighting Illini in 2009. According to the coaching staff, Aiken is "very talented" and has the most promise of any player in this position in recent history. Kevin Fogg will look to challenge Aikens at boundary corner, following a stellar sophomore season. During his second year with the program, Fogg finished 2010 with 33 tackles, 26 of which were solo, to go along with four pass breakups and two interceptions.
SAFETIES - The safety position returns all but one key player from last year's roster. In addition, the coaching staff has added additional depth with some newcomers to the program. Larry Claiborne is the lone safety not returning, as the would-be senior had to leave the program following a personal hardship. Claiborne had a career year in 2010 at free safety, finishing fifth on Liberty's roster with 40 tackles (25 solo and 15 assisted), to go along with three pass breakups.
Brandon Robinson will now look to lead this group from his weak-side safety position. Last season, Robinson played opposite of Claiborne and behind Brent Vinson. Robinson seems ready to assume the starting role now with Vinson being reassigned to the "adjuster" position this upcoming season. In 11 games, Robinson recorded 29 tackles and three pass breakups. Backing up Robinson at weak safety will be Chris Mayo, who certainly excelled for the Flames in his first season after coming to Liberty from football powerhouse Fork Union and finished the year tied for seventh on the team with 37 tackles.
With the departure of Claiborne, the free safety position was up for grabs during preseason camp, with Jeffrey Henderson and Jacob Hagen being the front runners. Adding additional depth at this position could be freshman newcomer Andrew Jauch. Henderson, the older brother of quarterback Gabe Henderson, transferred to Liberty from North Carolina Central and had to sit out last year. He has one year of eligibility left.
DEFENSIVE LINE - The group will be without Asa Chapman, who has been suspended indefinitely due to a violation of University policies. Behind Chapman at nose guard are Bryant Lewellyn and Matt Stokes. Lewellyn played in just two games in 2011, while Stokes was another of Rocco's greyshirted athletes. Looking to fill the void left by the three-man starting rotation of Terry Adams, Patrick Bannon and Darryl Robertson at the end positions will be Greg Schuster and Cory Freeman. Additionally, Rocco moved Francis Bah, a former tight end, to the defensive end position for the 2011 season.
Schuster finished the 2010 season with 23 tackles in 11 games, and came up with his first career fumble recovery during Liberty's season finale against Stony Brook. Freeman is one of the returning players with experience at defensive end. Despite only recording 12 tackles in 11 games, Freeman really impressed the coaching staff, and they have high expectations for the upcoming underclassman. Joining Freeman in the category of players that will have three years left after this season is Bah.
Paco Varol, part of Liberty's Germany connection that brought the team Big South All-Conference offensive lineman Soeren Wendland, had a promising spring last year, but was hampered by injuries during most of the regular season. Varol joined offensive lineman Jay Weatherington as a Samkon Gado award winner, for his most improved efforts during spring workouts.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS - Just like the offense, the Flames have one defensive position that will see several different faces in starting roles for the 2011 season. The Flames return just one true starter from the linebacking corps for the 2011 season in Mike Connolly. He had to sit out the spring workout season recovering from an injury that caused him to miss the last five games of the year in 2010.
Three of Liberty's four top tacklers from the 2010 season graduated, with each being starting linebackers for the Big South's top defensive unit. Kyle O'Donnell, last year's JACK linebacker, led the team and garnered first-team All-Conference honors with 75 tackles, 12.0 tackles for a loss and 3.0 sacks. Additionally, the Flames will be without the services of last year's MIKE linebackers Doncel Bolt (53 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 2 forced fumbles) and Chad Brown (40 tackles, 5.0 TFLs and 2.0 sacks), plus adjuster Danny Broggin (31 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 3.0 sacks and four interceptions).
Last year, Rocco changed the positioning and terminology of his linebacking corps, adding an "adjuster" and "drop" outside linebackers. The alteration gives the Flames some versatility and flexibility at the position that mirrors a traditionally "3-3-5" defensive scheme.
Connolly got off to a solid start in 2010 with 19 tackles in six games, including a strong outing in Liberty's upset of FBS foe Ball State, finishing with 3.5 tackles, a sack and fumble recovery on the game-sealing defensive stand. Filling in for Connolly during the spring and challenging for the starting role during the fall is Demetrius Ward. Ward finished the 2011 season with 17 tackles in 11 games.
Vinson is a returning starter for the Flames, but he spent most of last year in the secondary as the starter at weak safety. This year, Vinson has been moved to the "adjuster" position, taking over for Broggin, who had a breakout year with 31 tackles and four interceptions during his senior campaign. Vinson has gained experience at the position, manning it during spring workouts. However, with the unexpected development of Broggin, Vinson returned to the secondary during the regular season.
INSIDE LINEBACKERS - Rocco felt that the greatest level of evaluation during the spring came from the inside linebacker position, where the previously mentioned O'Donnell, Bolt and Brown have left vacancies with their graduation from the program. The three players that took the greatest advantage of the evaluation period were Nick Sigmon, Marques Jenkins and Scott Hyland. Sigmon seems to have locked down the starting role at MIKE linebacker, while Jenkins and Hyland entered preseason camp battling for the starting spot at JACK.
Sigmon is a redshirt freshman that the coaching staff "has high hopes for" and they believe he has all the tools to come out and have an excellent 2011 season. He will be backed up by Eric Fath, Nick Martin and program newcomer Chase Griffith, a summer transfer from USF.
Fath had a chance to gain some playing experience last year and the converted tight end did impress the coaching staff during those spurts. The element that excites the Flames coaching staff the most about the players are vying for time at the MIKE linebacker is their availability. Fath, Griffith and Martin have three years of eligibility left, while Sigmon has four years left with the program.
The most "seasoned" veteran among the inside linebacker group is Jenkins, who played in 10 of 11 games in 2010. Adding depth behind Jenkins and Hyland will be Jimmy O'Grady and Matt Baptiste. O'Grady comes to Liberty after playing two seasons of postgraduate football at Hargrave Military Academy.
SPECIAL TEAMS - Liberty returns two of the best kicking specialists in program history in Matt Bevins and Mike Larsson, plus returning long snapper Richard Wright and holder Mike Brown. Bevins earned first-team All-America honors from Walter Camp Foundation and the Sports Network, plus second-team All-America accolades from the Associated Press. Bevins finished the season ranked No. 1 in the country in field goals per game (1.82) and was one of only two FCS kickers with 20 field goals in 2010. Overall, Bevins finished the year by knocking down 20-of-27 field goal attempts, including his last 13 tries in a row.
Bevins also was the nation's top scoring kicker, as the junior finished the season with 105 points scored. He connected on 45-of-46 point-after attempts on the year, helping him surpass the 100-point mark for the second season in a row. In just three seasons at Liberty, Bevins has already rewritten several of Liberty's kicking records. He is the program's all-time leader with 54 field goals and 268 points scored.
Due to Liberty's prolific offense, Larsson, Liberty's starting punter for the last three years, does not get the opportunity to accumulate as many punts as most starting punters. In fact, Larsson does not meet either the Big South or NCAA standard of average punts per game to qualify for rankings (averaged only 3.6 punts per game). Had his numbers been eligible for consideration, the senior would have led the league and ranked No. 13 nationally in average yards per punt.
However, when called upon in 2010, he did put up his most impressive numbers since joining the program. He finished the year averaging 41.7 yards per punt (33 punts for 1,376 yards), including a 43.9 yard average in Big South games, helping him capture Big South first-team All-Conference honors. Liberty's special teams return positions will be held down by some of the fastest members of the program.
Heading into August training camp, Elliot Dutra and Aldreakis Allen were the frontrunners to Rocco's go-to players to return kickoffs, while Pat Kelly seems to be the player who will handle punt returns in 2011. B.J. Hayes and Desmond Rice, a wide receiver and running back, are slated as back-ups to both positions. Hayes led the program in 2010 with 12 punt return, averaging 10.2 yards per return, while he tied for the team lead with 13 kickoff returns for an average of 21.1 yards per return. A few others do have previous return experience, as Allen averaged 18.4 yards per kickoff return in 2009, while Kelly returned two punts for 12 yards in a limited role in 2010.