Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!
Facing a top-10 schedule nearly every year, Hugh Freeze won 38 games in five seasons as Ole Miss’ head coach, 7.6 per year. The Rebels averaged 4.8 wins in the eight seasons before his arrival and have averaged 5.5 since. They peaked in 2015, with 10 wins, a No. 3 S&P+ ranking (their highest since 1969), and a top-10 AP poll ranking (ditto). Based solely on the product, he was the school’s best hire since John Vaught, after whom the Rebels’ stadium is named.
Just two years after he coached his final game in Oxford, he was hired ... by Liberty.
Without any context, that’s an almost incomprehensible shift, going from holding your own in the SEC West to a school with no conference and one year of FBS experience. But the context is as significant as it is unique.
Freeze’s Ole Miss tenure was a wave of Bible quotes, allegations of recruiting misdeeds and improper benefits, and maybe the most misguided tweet in the history of college sports. Eventually, the story involved escort services and school-issued cell phones. It was the stuff documentaries and longform features are made of.
Freeze left Ole Miss in 2017, almost instantly pursued by SEC coaches for assistant roles. The SEC dissuaded schools from going this route, so the most loudly Christian coach in college football sought redemption at the most loudly Christian school in FBS, one that has become a Second Chance U for athletic administrators found involved in decidedly un-Christian situations.
This relationship will probably work very well on the field. For all Freeze’s flaws, he’s one heck of a recruiter and one heck of a coach.
Freeze replaces Turner Gill, the former Buffalo and Kansas head coach who spent seven seasons in Lynchburg, bringing solid FCS success (they won or shared four Big South title and reached the second round of the FCS playoffs in 2014) and helping Liberty ease into FBS life. He never had a losing record at LU, but he also won more than six games just twice — he raised the bar but left it pretty clearable for Freeze.
In Freeze’s first signing class at Liberty, he inked 10 three-star prospects, per the 247Sports Composite. That’s twice as many as Gill signed during his entire tenure. Virginia Beach cornerback Tayvion Land became LU’s highest-touted signee ever when he decommitted from Maryland on the day before February’s signing day and went with the Flames.
In theory, this wave of talent could mix with the veteran pieces Gill left. Senior quarterback Stephen Calvert threw for 3,000 yards last year, more than 1,000 of which went to 6’4 receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden. Senior end Jessie Lemonier was 12th in the country in sacks with 10.
Liberty’s first FBS team couldn’t defend the run to save its life but produced solid passing numbers on both sides of the ball and went a perfectly decent 6-6 with wins over Troy, Old Dominion, New Mexico, NMSU, and two FCS schools. And now they both return a top-25 level of production and get a shot in the arm with recent recruits.
Long-term, the Flames’ move to FBS still doesn’t make all that much sense. They made the leap with no likely conference affiliation, and appear to have sacrificed “advance deep into the FCS playoffs” for “maybe make the Cure Bowl if other conferences can’t provide a team” as their top-tier goal for a given season. But they’re here, and they’re probably going to do pretty well on the field with Freeze.
Freeze made some fascinating hires. His offensive co-coordinators are Kent Austin and Maurice Harris. Harris knows the system well, having served as tight ends coach under Freeze at both Arkansas State and Ole Miss, but Austin was an out-of-the-blue hire.
A former CFL quarterback (he threw for more than 36,000 yards over 10 seasons), Austin put in one year as head coach of the Saskatchewan Roughriders and won the Grey Cup, then spent three years as Houston Nutt’s coordinator at Ole Miss from 2008-10.
From there he put in three mostly unsuccessful seasons as Cornell’s head coach before returning to Canada. He took over as head coach and general manager of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and immediately reached two more Grey Cup finals, but returns diminished. His team fell to 7-11 in 2016, then he resigned after an 0-8 start to 2017.
CFL experience is pass-happy experience. After all, with only three downs, it’s like every series begins on second-and-10. You stretch the field horizontally and vertically in that league, and Freeze might look fondly on that philosophy — his Ole Miss teams were fast, pass-happy, and spread-happy.
This philosophy should mesh well with the returning personnel.
Gandy-Golden is one of the best mid-major receivers in the country. In a four-game span in the middle of last season, he caught 37 passes for 707 yards and six touchdowns; it is impossible to keep that up for a full 12 games, and he did not, but his upside is immense, and he’s made more dangerous by capable slot receivers in DJ Stubbs and Damian King, who combined for a 48 percent success rate and 13.8 yards per catch.
Between sophomore Khaleb Coleman, redshirt freshman Sean Queen, incoming three-star CJ Yarbrough, spring game stars Kevin Shaa and Shedro Louis, and a pair of interesting tight ends in senior Zac Foutz and Colorado transfer Johnny Huntley, it seems safe to assume that an exciting fourth option should emerge.
This should be more than enough for Calvert. The senior from Plantation, Fla., faded drastically in 2018, once Gandy-Golden stopped posting super-human numbers, but his first year in FBS certainly could have gone worse.
- Calvert in 2018, first 8 games: 56 percent completion rate, 14 yards per completion, 3.4 percent INT rate, 133.5 passer rating
- Last 4 games: 51 percent completion rate, 9 yards per completion, 6 percent INT rate, 86.5 passer rating
The pass was the more efficient means of moving the ball for Liberty in 2018, but the run game does have interesting pieces. A pretty big line returns five players with 96 career starts (average size among these five: 6’3, 306); guard Dontae Duff and center Thomas Sergeant have combined for 57 of those, and both three-star JUCO Maisen Knight and enormous three-star redshirt freshman Henry Chibueze (6’3, 340) could join the rotation.
Backs Frankie Hickson and Peytton Pickett are experienced. They combined to average 28 carries per game, and Hickson is 143 yards from 2,000 for his career. Sophomore Frank Boyd might have the upside, though. He gained 228 yards in 43 carries as a freshman, and he exploded for a 57-yard touchdown in the spring game. This will be a pass-first attack, but the Flames could still catch defenses wrong-footed with the ground game.
Freeze took an interesting approach to his defensive hires as well: he brought in half the West Georgia staff. Well, sort of.
New coordinator Scott Symons was UWG’s from 2014-17, working at various times with fellow new LU assistants Josh Aldridge (defensive line coach), Ricky Hunley (cornerbacks), and Sam Gregg (offensive line). The Wolves fielded a dominant Division II defense, allowing just 15.2 points per game and 4.2 yards per play in 2017, and Symons was scooped up by assistant-hirer extraordinaire Mike Norvell at Memphis last year. After a year as Norvell’s inside linebackers coach, Symons is now an FBS DC.
Symons’ UWG defenses produced decent havoc numbers while attempting to dominate the line. It might take a little while for him to find the personnel at LU — the Flames most certainly didn’t dominate up front in 2018. They ranked 124th in rushing marginal efficiency and 122nd in standard-downs marginal efficiency; they were cursed with the ability to rush the passer well on third-and-longs while almost never forcing third downs. And that was with end Juwan Wells and tackle Tolen Avery. Granted, both were better against the pass than the run, but Symons will be attempting to improve a dreadful run front without a couple of last year’s better pieces.
Identifying an obvious need, Freeze signed a trio of JUCO tackles in Elijah James, William Green (both of whom were three-stars), and Devonte Lloyd. If one or two can play immediate roles alongside returning starter Devin Pearson, that will help immensely.
It could also make Solomon Ajayi a star. The senior from Frisco, Tex., was perhaps Liberty’s best player but was tasked mostly with cleaning up messes. He still found time to record 4.5 tackles for loss and four passes defensed, but a better run front would make his job easier. It would also open up more pass rushing opportunities for Jessie Lemonier and a couple of solid cohorts in sophomore end Austin Lewis and linebacker Brandon Tillmon.
On rare passing downs or third downs, Liberty thrived. The Flames were 25th in Passing Downs S&P+, and they were in the top 25 in both third-and-short success rate (25th) and third-and-medium (10th). The pass rush helped, but the secondary was also quite strong.
Most of it returns, including safeties Elijah Benton and Isaac Steele and active corner Bejour Wilson (three INTs, 10 breakups, two tackles for loss). They do have to replace corner Jeremy Peters and nickel Corbin Jackson, but the entire second string is back, and Freeze added both Tayvion Land (the star recruit) and another couple of JUCOs in corners Emanuel Dabney and Isaiah Avery.
Going 6-6 in your first FBS season is solid, but think of what the Flames’ record might have been had they not had, per Special Teams S&P+, the second-worst special teams in the country. DJ Stubbs’ punt returns were solid, but kickers Aaron Peart and Alex Probert had minimal range on either field goals or kickoffs, and punter Aidan Alves averaged 33.9 net yards per kick and ranked 128th in punt efficiency. Everybody’s back, but let’s just say there’s plenty of room for improvement.
2019 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Proj. S&P+ Rk
|at New Mexico State
|New Mexico State
|Projected S&P+ Rk
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk
|84 / 123
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk
|2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*
|-2 / 0.6
|2018 TO Luck/Game
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)
|74% (79%, 68%)
|2018 Second-order wins (difference)
Let’s face it: this is a really good marriage. Freeze will be perfectly happy within the ultra-religious walls of Liberty, and with his recruiting, tactical acumen, and hungry coaching staff, he’ll likely win soon. What that means when you’re an FBS indie with no plan for conference alignment, I don’t really know.
With the combination of strong experience, incoming upside, and high-quality coaching, I would be very surprised if Liberty’s offense didn’t improve quite a bit this season. S&P+ projects a rise from 96th to 84th on offense, but I could see a bit more than that.
The question is on defense. If the JUCOs stick and the standard-downs defense improves, the Flames could be an awfully viable team.
The schedule will help. Liberty does face three projected top-60 teams in Virginia, BYU, and Syracuse, but everybody else is projected 99th or worse in S&P+. Liberty is favored in six games and is a one-possession underdog in two other games. Odds of bowl eligibility are pretty solid, even if there’s not actually a bowl to attend.