2018 Liberty Flames Football Preview

The newest member of FBS football is Liberty University. Yes, that Liberty University. The school that was founded by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell in 1971 and is run by his son, Jerry Jr. today. Yes, that Jerry Falwell. A pilgrimage to the Lynchburg, Virginia campus has been a must for GOP presidential candidates for decades. Liberty is the largest Evangelical Christian university in the world. As it stands today, its enrollment hovers above 110,000 students, with 94,000 of those getting their degree online, making it the largest private non-profit in the United States. Its endowment is $1.29 billion. Liberty is not your ordinary move-up from FCS.

Usually a school with that much money and political clout would be embraced with open arms by a G5 conference. However, this is Liberty we’re talking about here.

The university presidents from the leagues determine conference expansion. The commissioner can vet and nominate candidates, but ultimately a majority of university presidents must agree to let a new school join. As you can imagine, most of academia tends to lean to the left politically. Convincing a room full of left-leaning college administrators to add Jerry Falwell U to their conference went over about as well as you would expect. Both the Sun Belt and CUSA rejected lucrative offers from Liberty to join.

There’s a reason that Liberty played in the Big South for all those years in FCS rather than the more competitive CAA or SoCon. Liberty is controversial. Even their AD Ian McCaw is controversial. Having resigned from the same position at Baylor due to the football team’s much-publicized sexual assault scandal.

Jerry Falwell Jr. claimed the Sun Belt and CUSA rejected Liberty due to bias against the school’s religious mission and the school’s conservative bent. Whatever the case may be, Liberty will remain an independent for now. Liberty’s quest to become the evangelical Baptist answer to BYU has begun.

What should we expect?

Actual Football

Head coach Turner Gill leads Liberty. He’s a known commodity to most college football fans. The former Nebraska QB guided Buffalo to it’s first MAC championship in 2008 before bolting for the Kansas job. After winning only five games in two seasons for the Jayhawks, he was terminated in 2011. Liberty quickly scooped him up, and Gill has compiled a 41-29 record in six seasons at Liberty and has never had a losing season.

However, that doesn’t mean the pressure isn’t on Gill. Despite its massive upset over Baylor to start the 2017 season, the Flames finished 6-5 for the third straight season. They haven’t made the FCS playoffs since 2014. Liberty is not eligible to make a bowl this season, and can’t compete for a conference championship. Without anything tangible to play for, 2018 will be about playing for pride and building for the future.

Offense

Key players:
QB Stephen Calvert
WR Antonio Gandy-Golden
Slot Damian King
Slot Cephas Reddick
WR BJ Farrow
RB Frankie Hickson
RG Dontae Duff

Liberty plays an up-tempo, pass-first spread offense led by offensive coordinator Joe Dailey. The Flames averaged 76 plays a game last year and had two games above 100 plays. Stephen “Buckshot” Calvert returns at QB after a record-breaking 2017. Calvert set single-season school records in passing yards, passing attempts, and touchdown passes. Calvert’s top four receivers return with Antonio Gandy-Golden leading the way. Gandy-Golden caught 69 balls last year for 1,066 yards and ten touchdowns. Slots Damian King and Cephas Reddick as well as deep threat BJ Farrow give Calvert a bevy of options to throw to. Juco transfers TE Chris Barrett, and WR Kevin Shaa only adds to the depth.

The running back position is less settled, leading rusher Carrington Mosley is gone. Frankie Hickson will step into the starting role after posting 375 yards, and 2 TDs on 100 carries last season. Senior Kentory Matthews showed some pop in limited opportunities last season. While this is a pass-first offense, an effective running game is needed to keep the pressure off of Calvert and to keep opposing defenses honest.

The offensive line is headlined by RG Dontae Duff (6-1 310) who made the All-Big South 2nd team last season. It’s a lean yet experienced line with four starters and six guys with starting experience returning. Look for Liberty to put up plenty of points this fall.

Defense/Special Teams

Liberty’s defense wasn’t exactly great last season, but there were some bright spots, most notably in the secondary. Safety is the deepest position on defense with juniors Brandon Tillmon, Rion Davis, and Elijah Benton returning. Tillmon or Davis could end up moving to linebacker after many departures there. Corbin Jackson and Ceneca Espinoza Jr. provide depth at safety.

Jeremy Peters is the best returning CB, he led the Flames in passes defended last season. Joining Peters on the outside will be juniors Malik Matthews and Jimmy Faulks. Juco transfer Bejour Wilson and redshirt freshman Keith Best will provide depth. Best has good size at 6-2 190 and could end up winning the spot opposite of Peters.

As for the front-7, there are a lot more question marks. Liberty returns its top pass rusher from last season, Juwan Wells (11 TFLs, 4.5 sacks), but not much else. Tolen Avery, Elisha Mitchell, Ralfs Rusins, Vincent Elfante, and Mitchell Hurtado provide size on the interior and will jockey for playing time at the other three DL spots.

At linebacker, starters Solomon McGinty and Jaylyn McKinney have graduated. Solomon Ajayi, brother of NFL RB Jay Ajayi, will end up taking McGinty’s spot at weakside LB, Brandon Tillmon is expected to man the strongside. As for the middle, it’s between a pair of seniors Lucas Irons and Kedrick Bradley.

Alex Probert will return as starting kicker. DJ Stubbs and Frankie Hickson will be the primary returners. The Flames will have to replace Trey Turner at punter.

Schedule/Predictions

Liberty lacks a TV deal as it stands. However, it’s vast financial resources have made it easier for them to fill out their schedule. They’ve already secured home games against Syracuse, New Mexico, BYU, Virginia Tech, and UNC in the coming years. They kick off their 2018 season against the other G5 school in Virginia, Old Dominion. From there the schedule gets quirky. Most notably, they have a home-and-home series vs. New Mexico State. It’s the first time I have ever seen schools play twice in the same regular season.

There is a possibility here for Liberty to chalk up 4-6 wins with this schedule. Every game except for Auburn, UVA, and Troy is in-play. I will err on the side of caution with a 4-8 prediction, which is respectable for a first-year program. Without a bowl game or conference championship to play for, it will be up to Turner Gill to keep his men motivated.

Sep. 1 Old Dominion Monarchs
Williams Stadium, Lynchburg, VA 6:00pm ET

Sep. 8  at Army Black Knights
Michie Stadium, West Point, NY Noon ET
CBSSN

Sep. 15  Norfolk State Spartans
Williams Stadium, Lynchburg, VA 6:00pm ET

Sep. 22  North Texas Mean Green
Williams Stadium, Lynchburg, VA 6:00pm ET

Sep. 29  at New Mexico Lobos
Dreamstyle Stadium, Albuquerque, NM Time TBA

Oct. 6  at New Mexico State Aggies
Aggie Memorial Stadium, Las Cruces, NM 8:00pm ET

Oct. 13  Troy Trojans
Williams Stadium, Lynchburg, VA 2:00pm ET

Oct. 20  Idaho State Bengals
Williams Stadium, Lynchburg, VA 2:00pm ET

Nov. 3  at UMass Minutemen
McGuirk Stadium, Amherst, MA Time TBA

Nov. 10  at Virginia Cavaliers
Scott Stadium, Charlottesville, VA Time TBA

Nov. 17  at Auburn Tigers
Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, AL Time TBA

Nov. 24  New Mexico State Aggies
Williams Stadium, Lynchburg, VA 2:00pm ET

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