2022: G5 Preview: Liberty Begins Life After Malik Willis
Willis defined the last two seasons in Lynchburg. Who takes over?
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The next quarterback to struggle under Hugh Freeze will be the first. Since beginning his career as a head coach in 2011 at Arkansas State, the mercurial leader of Liberty’s football program has staked his claim as one of America’s best offensive minds, directing a tremendously quarterback-friendly system that produces huge college numbers and just yielded its most-hyped prospect to-date in Malik Willis.
Even with Willis slipping in the NFL draft at the end of April, Freeze’s star among quarterbacks remains strong. He’s been able to punch above his weight class in recruiting the position at both Ole Miss (granted, he punched above his weight class at every position in Oxford) and Liberty on the recruiting trail.
With the former, he secured pledges from the nation’s top JUCO quarterback in 2012 (Bo Wallace) and 2015 (Chad Kelly) and No. 4 JUCO QB in 2017 (Jordan Ta’amu), a pair of four-stars (Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade) in 2013 and the nation’s No. 4 overall player and top quarterback (Shea Patterson) in 2016.
Directing the latter since 2019, he’s added the transfer portal to his arsenal out of necessity (despite its best efforts, Liberty has yet to develop into a recruiting powerhouse), grabbing Willis (a former high three-star) from Auburn in 2019, Kaidon Salter (a former four-star) from Tennessee in 2021 and long-time Baylor starter Charlie Brewer from Utah (where he spent one season) in 2022.
In large part, those recruiting wins have paid off. Freeze inherited Ryan Aplin at Arkansas State and managed a 10-3 season behind his 304-of-476 passing for 3,588 yards and 19-touchdown performance, despite 16 interceptions. That (along with some off-field antics and a history with many at Ole Miss) was enough to launch him into the SEC, where his reputation in developing quarterbacks (among other things) grew.
Wallace had similar interception issues in 2012, tossing 17 of his own, but he completed just under 64 percent of his passes for 2,994 yards and 22 touchdowns, while Ole Miss went 7-6 with a top 50 offense and a three-score win over rivals Mississippi State, then ranked 25th nationally, to become bowl eligible.
Wallace never really dropped the interception bug, but he threw for nearly 6,800 yards across the next two seasons. His seasons are the closest Freeze has come to producing a lackluster offense. Kelly directed a top 10 unit in 2015 and Patterson flashed immense ability working behind in 2016 – though we never saw him work under Freeze for reasons covered as extensively as anything in college football.
His time at Liberty has been marked similarly by strong quarterback play. Stephen Calvert was merely “good” in 2019 but still threw 28 touchdowns to seven interceptions and led the nation’s No. 24 scoring offense.
But it was the ascendence of Willis, who took the reins in 2020, that cemented the current definition of Freeze’s offense that established him as the quarterback coach who merited transfers from Salter and Brewer. Freeze brought Willis along slowly, keeping things simple in 2020 while he learned before opening up the offense in 2021, doling out nearly 30 passing attempts per game. Willis completed 61.1 percent of his passes for 2,857 yards and 27 touchdowns, and after the season, he earned a nod from the Titans in the third round of the draft.
His two-year growth and the departure that it preceded paints much of the outlook for Liberty this season. Whether Freeze can develop a replacement for Willis is not the question to ask – he can. Rather, which player claims the throne, and which offense is he tasked with running?
The former will determine the latter, and it all will determine the outlook for a program losing its star quarterback, starting halfback, one starting wide receiver, starting tight end, two offensive linemen, both defensive tackles, both linebackers, and three starters in the secondary.
Brewer is the safer pick, but he’d also be quite the departure for Freeze, who has found himself infatuated with big-armed quarterbacks in recent years. A strong arm, Brewer is not.
But, he won quite a few games at Baylor, he’s thrown more than 1,300 passes for his career and completed 63.3 percent of them for 10,1084 yards and 68 touchdowns to 31 interceptions. He’s certainly a durable option and Freeze could likely run nearly the full offense with him at the helm, but each of his last two programs have cast him aside for higher-ceiling options. To call him a poor man’s Mac Jones would be apt both for his style of play and for his fit within Freeze’s offense, which is indistinguishable from those run at Alabama, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Texas, or dozens of other RPO-merchant programs.
His fit within the roster is shakier. Liberty brought in deep threat receivers to complement Willis’ strength and enters this campaign with a roster full of them, including incumbent starter CJ Daniels (who is recovering from a torn ACL but should be good to go come week one). Departing Kevin Shaa was a similar player. There are pieces here who can work better with a limited quarterback, namely slot specialist Demario Douglas, Campbell transfer Caleb Snead and returning outside wideout CJ Yarbrough, but that may be antithetical to Freeze’s ideology at this point. With what should be a strong offensive line and a very good receiving corps, now may be the time for a higher-risk quarterback who offers a bigger reward.
If that’s the case, Salter will be the signal-caller come September. A former top 200 prospect, Salter was kicked out of Tennessee in the spring of 2021 and made his way to Liberty, where he spent the 2021 season learning behind Willis.
He’s only 6-1, 190 pounds, but he earned acclaim as a recruit for his arm strength and athleticism. His lone completion last season was a 39-yard touchdown pass. He may require the 2020 playbook as he continues to pick up the intricacies of the position, but he’s certainly the more talented of the pair and was recruited to be Willis’ successor.
Given the talent elsewhere on the offense – along with those receivers, Liberty brings back a pair of 400-yard rushers in T.J Green and Shedro Louis and adds Hawaii’s Dae Dae Hunter to the running back room – Salter seems the favorite at this point. The rest of the roster should be talented enough to bring him along smoothly.
Incumbent backup Jonathan Bennett is an option too and knows the offense better than either of the other two after serving behind Willis last season. But, you don’t usually bring in a transfer quarterback with five seasons of starting experience because you’re confident in the incumbent.
Freeze’s offense has drawn nearly all of the attention at Liberty since his arrival, but defensive coordinator Scott Symons built quite the group in his own right and earned the same position at SMU this offseason as his reward. Internal replacements Josh Aldridge and Jack Curtis take up his post as co-coordinators and inherit plenty of talent, even with seven departing starters.
Of those starters, the biggest names to know are defensive tackle Elijah James, linebackers Rashaad Harding and Storey Jackson, and cornerback Duron Lowe.
James’ running mate Ralfs Rusins is gone, as is top backup Henry Chibueze, but James was easily the best (and hardest to replace) of the bunch. Harding and Jackson didn’t exactly hoard snaps at linebacker (Ahmad Walker, who returns, recorded more than 300 reps) but they were very strong in everything except for coverage (which Symons left largely for a five-man secondary) and will be missed all the same.
Lowe wasn’t the only important departure from the secondary – rover Skyler Thomas was a great run stuffer and safety Cedric Stone had been around in that role forever – but he was the best, serving as the team’s top cornerback and a coverage specialist.
But, the returners offer plenty of excitement. TreShaun Clark wasn’t quite up to his near-elite 2020 form in 2021, but he’s going to be asked to do more as a run-stuffer (hopefully still from an end spot, because he struggled in the B gap) with the losses at tackle, and that’s where he’s best utilized. Durrell Johnson, who missed part of last season but still made seven starts is a great complement as a borderline elite pass rusher off the end opposite Clark. Stephen Sings V won’t start, but he’s a very capable reserve who can do a bit of everything.
The end room does lose Aakil Washington, but he’s only moving back a unit. He’s flashed very good coverage skills as an edge rusher during his time at Liberty and earned a promotion of sorts for it, sliding into a passing game specialist linebacker role and all but certainly assuming the open starting spot next to Walker. That’s great news for Walker, who can focus fully on his best trait: stuffing the run.
Chris Megginson is a step down from Lowe as CB1 but he was fine as a CB2 last season and brings great physicality. It wouldn’t be hard to see him taking a step forward. Daijahn Anthony started the last three games of the 2021 season on the outside and looked fantastic doing it, which likely launches him into the CB2 job this year. Free safety Javon Scruggs rounds out the obvious starters, having recorded 61 tackles and started every game last season. The three-year starter leaves something to be desired in coverage but he tackles like a linebacker and can be trusted anywhere Liberty needs him.
The opening at rover is a two-way battle, and though Quinton Reese is younger and highly thought of, I’d probably pick his more experienced counterpart, Juawan Treadwell. Usually, in an even battle, I cede to youth. But I don’t think this one is all that even. This secondary will need some coverage specialists and Treadwell is quite a bit better than Reese in that role.
Stone’s replacement is pretty easy too. Rocket Rahimi backed up Scruggs as a free safety last season and will need to get a little more physical to move into the strong safety job, but he’s too good to keep out of the starting lineup and no one else on the roster is an obvious plug-and-play in this spot. Southern Utah transfer Kobe Singleton will play a role too, likely as CB3, but he needs to shake a nagging groin injury before he can do that.
That’s a good roster. It’s a very good roster. Freeze’s pick at quarterback and that player’s subsequent play is too important and too hard to predict at this point for us to get a great read on the schedule outlook, but another bowl bid is an easy baseline and nine wins don’t feel distant.
Akron, Gardner-Webb, New Mexico State, Southern Mississippi, UConn, and UMass provide a safety net for the former, while none of Arkansas, BYU, Old Dominion, UAB, Virginia Tech, or Wake Forest feel entirely unbeatable. Liberty won’t get all of them, especially with Arkansas, Old Dominion, and Wake Forest on the road, but life after Willis will be essentially more of the same for the Flames.
The question beyond that is the same as it has been: How long will it be until an SEC team is desperate enough to forgive Freeze?