To get to know more about the Liberty football team, Damien Sordelett, the Flames beat writer for the News & Advance in Lynchburg, Virginia, answered five question about the team BYU will be hosting at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday evening (5:30 p.m. MT, ESPNU).
Here’s what Sordelett had to say about this 2019 Liberty football team:
1. Why has Liberty been able to have this level of success in just its second year as an FBS school?
SORDELETT: Liberty won six games last season in its inaugural FBS campaign, and the new coaching staff has built on that success by bringing in the highest-rated recruiting class in program history and then developing the talent to contribute this season. Three true freshmen are starting (defensive end TreShaun Clark, cornerback Kei’Trel Clark and nickelback Tayvion Land) alongside veterans like defensive end Jessie Lemonier and linebackers Solomon Ajayi and Brandon Tillmon, and that side of the ball has made the biggest jump this season under coordinator Scott Symons. Defense was the biggest liability last season and ranked among the worst in the FBS in several major statistical categories. Now, the unit is one of the best nationally in getting to the quarterback and taking the ball away. The defensive improvement allowed the team to get to four victories by the first open week and give the offense time to find its footing. The offense, which is called by head coach Hugh Freeze, did not go with tempo at the beginning of the season in order to help with the defense’s lack of depth. Freeze, though, has opened the offense and the Flames are going with more tempo. Last week’s victory over UMass last weekend was the first time Liberty went exclusively with tempo and the result was a 49-point, 502-yard first half. The offensive execution, coupled with a defense that is relatively healthy for this time of the season, gives Liberty the ability to perform even better in the final three contests of the regular season.
2. The Flames made one trip out west already in 2019, a 20-13 win at New Mexico State. Did you feel that the travel had any impact on Liberty’s performance in that game and thus might be a factor in this weekend’s contest?
SORDELETT: That Oct. 5 game in Las Cruces came at the end of the opening six-game stretch before the first of two open weeks. At the time, Freeze was still recovering from back surgery for a staph infection and he wasn’t opening up the offense to its tempo attack. He, instead, elected to go with complementary football in order to keep the defense as fresh as possible. The Flames went with complementary football the week prior in a 17-10 home win over New Mexico. The travel didn’t have any impact on the team’s performance in that game — the defense recorded two of its three takeaways in the red zone — and I don’t foresee it having an impact in this weekend’s matchup.
3. For BYU fans who might not be familiar with his talents, describe what — besides his middle name — makes Flame senior quarterback Stephen Buckshot Calvert so notable.
SORDELETT: Calvert has the arm strength and accuracy to make most every possible throw, and he’s backed that up with 11,000 passing yards and 85 touchdowns in 39 consecutive starts. The biggest adjustment he has made this season is better decision-making. Calvert had the proclivity to force throws into tight windows and not properly diagnose certain coverages. Most of his career-high 18 interceptions last season came when he didn’t see safety help or a weakside linebacker in coverage. Freeze and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kent Austin spent the spring and training camp working with Calvert on limiting his turnovers and preparing properly so he can make the proper pre- and post-snap reads. Calvert has not thrown an interception in 236 attempts, a stretch dating back to the offense’s second drive at Louisiana in Week 2.
4. What defensive unit is the strongest for Liberty and what makes that group effective?
SORDELETT: The secondary has proven to be the most reliable this season, even with a smorgasbord of injuries that has forced four starters to miss time at various points throughout the campaign. The group is responsible for eight of the nine interceptions and all four fumble recoveries. It is not only the production of the group that has been vital to the defense’s success, but the ability to limit the explosive plays down the field. The Flames surrendered far too many big pass plays last season because the secondary was frequently caught with its eyes in the backfield and lost receivers. Cornerbacks coach Rickey Hunley has worked tirelessly to make sure the cornerbacks in particular don’t get caught looking into the backfield at the snap, and the result has been better coverage from Jimmy Faulks and Kei’Trel Clark. Clark, a freshman, has been one of the more pleasant surprises with his instant ability to be lined up on an island and shut down receivers. Rover Elijah Benton and free safety JaVon Scruggs have been reliable leaders who have made the unit perform at a high level with their sure tackling and nose for finding the football.
5. What are your keys for the Flames to upset the Cougars and get bowl eligible this week?
SORDELETT: If Liberty were to upset BYU, it will come down to two important factors: No turnovers and getting stops. The Flames have been at their best this season when they avoid turning the ball over on offense. (The three turnovers last week at UMass came on special teams and with the two backup quarterbacks.) Freeze hasn’t tipped his hand to whether the offense goes with tempo or elects to play complementary football, but the offense is better suited to go with tempo and that will likely be what helps break through the BYU defense. Liberty, on the other side of the ball, needs to get off the field when it has a chance. The defense was abysmal on third down against Rutgers, allowing the Scarlet Knights to convert on 12 of 17 opportunities, and then improved significantly against UMass (4 for 17). If the Flames can force the Cougars into third-and-long situations and then get off the field, that will help in the upset bid.
For more from Damien Sordelett, follow him on Twitter at @DamienSordelett.