Virginia Tech Football: Liberty Preview
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After a long wait, the Justin Fuente era finally begins on Saturday afternoon when Virginia Tech hosts the Liberty Flames in Lane Stadium at 12:30pm on The ACC Network. Finally, it’s time for the Liberty preview!
Since Fuente was hired in November, we’ve sliced, diced and analyzed everything we possibly could. From recruiting, to tailback production, to how he uses his quarterbacks in the running game, you name it and we’ve probably covered it. Much of what we covered might not even matter when Saturday gets here, as Fuente has said on many occasions that he’ll tailor his offense to fit his current personnel.
None of that stuff matters now. We’re finally about to play a real football game, and it’s not a day too soon. I’m not sure I could take another week of speculation, depth chart guessing, questions about the quarterbacks, etc. We’ll all start to get our answers on Saturday afternoon.
Liberty only went 6-5 last season, though they did manage to upset #8 Montana and #4 Coastal Carolina during the season. The Flames were ranked for most of the year, but overall they had a disappointing season despite their pair of victories over Top 10 FCS teams.
Liberty is coached by former Nebraska quarterback and Buffalo and Kansas head coach Turner Gill. He did good work at Buffalo, but was fired after two seasons at Kansas. At Liberty, he has taken a program that finished in the top 25 for four straight seasons under Danny Rocco and failed to finish in the top 25 in any of his four seasons. While the Flames have been solid under Gill, they’ve taken a bit of a step back from the previous four seasons under Rocco.
Joe Dailey is Liberty’s offensive coordinator. If that name sounds familiar to you, it’s because this isn’t the first time the Hokies have faced Dailey. The last time came on September 9, 2006 when Dailey quarterbacked the North Carolina Tar Heels. In that game against Bud Foster’s defense, he went 10-of-17 for 55 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
Hokies vs. FCS Teams
Besides the obvious upset by JMU in 2010, there have been times where the Hokies haven’t played their best football against FCS teams. By that I mean they have failed to produce good offensive numbers at times despite their talent advantage. Let’s take it back to 2006 and go from there.
Northeastern, 2006: 382 yards of VT offense
William & Mary, 2007: 287 yards
Furman, 2008: 329 yards
James Madison, 2010: 362 yards
Appalachian State, 2011: 518 yards
Austin Peay, 2012: 419 yards
Western Carolina: 2013: 462 yards
William & Mary, 2014: 488 yards
Furman, 2015: 583 yards
Virginia Tech generally failed to establish control at the line of scrimmage against FCS teams from 2006 through 2010 (and yet that offensive staff continued to stay in place until they ran Tech’s talent level into the ground, but I digress). The Hokies have fared much better in recent seasons, and they should fare well against the Liberty defense on Saturday.
Liberty’s defense held up well against the rush last year, but they struggled against the pass. Here are their defensive numbers from the 2015 season (FCS rankings):
Rushing Defense: #38
Pass Defense: #90
Total Defense: #54
Scoring Defense: #67
Pass Efficiency Defense: #100
Tackles for Loss: #73
Third Down Defense: #75
Redzone Defense: #87
The Flames couldn’t stop teams from throwing the ball, they didn’t make many plays in the backfield against the running game, they were below average on third down, and they struggled in the redzone.
At best, the 2015 Liberty defense can be considered mediocre. In 2016 they’ll have to replace the school’s all-time leader in sacks, as well as a veteran senior in the secondary who is out for the season with an injury.
Liberty’s defensive line has been one of their most productive units over the past few years. Here’s a look at what the interior of the Tech offensive line will be facing at defensive tackle…
Ron Greene (6-2, 310, Sr.): 25 career starts, 4.5 TFL and two sacks in 2015
Tolen Avery (6-4, 270, So.): 7 career tackles, former defensive end
Will Brown (6-2, 300, So.): 6 career tackles
Gregg Storey (6-5, 345, So.): 5 career games as an offensive lineman
Greene is an experienced player, but the rest of that group of defensive tackle lacks experience. Tolen Avery has moved inside from defensive end, while Gregg Storey was an offensive lineman a year ago. However, this group of tackles has a lot more size than defensive tackles of most FCS programs.
Here’s how the group of defensive ends stack up…
Edwin Dessources (6-1, 235, Sr.): Six TFL and 2.5 sacks in 2015, played in 32 career games
Juwan Wells (6-2, 255, So.): 7.5 TFL and five sacks in eight games as a true freshman
Dia’Vante Brown (6-2, 245, Jr.): Mostly a special teams player in the past
Javon Frazier (6-2, 245, r-Fr.): First career game
Michael Anderson (6-3, 220, Fr.): First career game
Juwan Wells is the most physically gifted player on Liberty’s defensive line. However, as a group the Flames lack experience at this position. They lost defensive end Chima Uzowihe after last season, and he finished his career as Liberty’s all-time leader in sacks. It will be difficult for the 2016 Liberty squad to match that kind of production.
Linebacker is a position of strength for Liberty, with two senior starters.
Nick Newman (6-4, 215, Sr.) has been a Second Team All-Big South player for each of the last two seasons. In 2015 he led the team with 74 tackles, including 10 tackles in the season opener against West Virginia. Newman made his first start as a freshman, and he is a former safety. He’ll play on the weak side against the Hokies.
Dexter Robbins (5-11, 225, Sr.) has 76 tackles spread out over the last two seasons. He’ll man the middle linebacker position against the Hokies on Saturday.
Neither Newman or Robbins are known for their tackle for loss ability, but they are solid, experienced seniors who should both have a good season for the Flames.
Liberty suffered a serious blow in the spring when rising senior Wesley Scott was lost for the season. He was expected to play a major role for the Flames. Here’s the current two-deep at cornerback:
Chris Turner (6-3, 175, So.): 4 interceptions, Second Team All-Big South as a freshman
Tyrin Holloway (6-0, 195, Jr.): 11 career starts
Jeremy Peters (5-10, 190, So.): 11 games as a true freshman
Malik Matthews (5-11, 185, r-Fr.): First career game
Liberty should get good play from Chris Turner and Tyrin Holloway this season, but they’ll need a third player to step up and play the nickel role effectively. Jimmy Faulks (6-1, 175, Fr.) could also see time against the Hokies.
At safety, Liberty could start JUCO transfer Solomon McGinty (6-2, 220, Jr.). He played for Tyler Junior College in Texas, where he faced Virginia Tech starting quarterback Jerod Evans at Trinity Valley. He’s a big safety who has impressed the Liberty coaching staff with his physical play during the preseason.
Others safeties who could see playing time include…
Corbin Jackson (6-0, 200, So.): 10 starts, 6.5 TFL as a freshman
Cam Jackson (6-1, 205, So.): 11 games as a freshman, mostly on special teams
Alpha Jalloh (6-1, 200, Sr.): Started 11 games at free safety last season
Overall, Liberty has plenty of experience in the secondary, though that experience hasn’t played at a particularly high level. The Flames finished #90 in FCS in passing yards allowed and #100 in pass efficiency defense. Obviously that game against a lower level of competition than they’ll see in Isaiah Ford, Bucky Hodges and the other Tech offensive weapons that will hit the field on Saturday.
Here are the numbers Liberty put up on offense last season. As was the case with their defensive numbers, the Flames were in the middle of the pack overall.
Rushing Offense: #101
Passing Offense: #29
Total Offense: #61
Scoring Offense: #63
Pass Efficiency: #38
Tackles for Loss Allowed: #70
Sacks Allowed: #34
Third Down Offense: #48
Redzone Offense: #90
Last year’s team was pass heavy, and they protected the quarterback well. However, they didn’t rush for many yards and they didn’t do well in the redzone.
New Quarterback, Different Style
Stephon Masha (6-1, 205, Jr.) takes over as Liberty’s starting quarterback in 2016. He is regarded as more of a running threat than a passing threat, so expect plenty of designed quarterback runs and read option plays on Saturday afternoon.
That being said, he has had success throwing the football in the past. At the end of the 2014 season as a r-freshman, Masha had two very good games against Charleston Southern and #1 Coastal Carolina…
Charleston Southern: 10 carries for 99 yards, 21-of-32 for 238 yards and four touchdowns
Coastal Carolina: 20-of-33 for 285 yards, one touchdown
Masha helped the team into the playoffs that year. However, he didn’t see much playing time in 2015.
Stopping mobile quarterbacks is generally more difficult than stopping guys who don’t have good feet, so the Hokies will have to stay disciplined with Masha. However, if they can take his top target out of the game with good coverage, that will make the front seven’s job a lot easier.
Liberty has to replace last year’s top receiver Darrin Peterson, who was in training camp with the Chicago Bears this year. Peterson is one of the all-time greats in program history, and his spot will not be easy to fill. However, the Flames do bring back some experienced players, and this should be a solid group across the board…
BJ Farrow (6-2, 190, So.): 32 catches, 448 yards in 2015
Zac Parker (5-9, 185, Sr.): 49 catches, 464 yards, Second Team All-Big South
Dante Shells (6-1, 180, Sr.): Over 1,400 career receiving yards
Damian King (5-11, 175, So.): 18 catches, 161 yards in 2015
Those four players will form the core group of receivers for this Liberty team. The Hokies will have to watch out for the trick play with King, as he threw two touchdown passes a season ago.
All-Big South performers DJ Abnar and Des Rice have departed, and new running backs coach Scott Downing has to find players who can fill the void.
Todd Macon (5-10, 210, Jr.) is expected to get the majority of the work, especially early in the season. He ran for 303 yards on 73 carries last season and managed to find the end zone eight times. He is Liberty’s most experienced running back.
There are several other options as well…
Carrington Mosley (5-11, 235, Jr.): Primarily a special teams player in the past
Frankie Hickson (5-8, 200, r-Fr.): First college game
Mitchell Lewis (6-0, 220, Fr.): First college game
Unless Macon has a breakout season, there is likely no star in this group of backs. All four players should see action against the Hokies on Saturday.
Here is Liberty’s starting offensive line, from left to right…
LT Tanner Hartman (6-4, 280, Jr.): Third year as a starter. Right tackle the last two seasons
LG Lucas Holder (6-4, 295, Jr.): Started last season until an injury sidelined him
C Dontae Duff (6-1, 310, r-Fr.): First college game
RG Aharown Campbell (6-5, 355, Sr.): Part-time starter his whole career
RT Sam Isaacson (6-6, 305, r-Fr.): First college game
Though Liberty’s starting offensive line is a little bigger than most starting lines, two of their starters will be playing in their first collegiate game. Ken Ekanem will go head-to-head with Tanner Hartman, who is Liberty’s best player up front. Sam Issacson will make his first college appearance opposite Vinny Mihota. If Tim Settle lines up across from Aharown Campbell, we might have a legitimate earthquake in Lane Stadium. That’s almost 700 pounds of beef colliding.
Though they slipped a bit last season, Liberty is a solid FCS program. However, this game isn’t about Liberty. This game is about Virginia Tech. If the Hokies execute, they’ll run the Flames off the field because of superior speed and athleticism. Only the Hokies can stop themselves in this game. They made a habit of doing exactly that against FCS teams from 2006-10, but things got a lot better in those games under Scot Loeffler and his staff, and I expect they’ll go well with Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen in charge.
Here are Fuente’s last two games against FCS games…
Austin Peay: 63-0
Missouri State: 63-7
If he can produce something similar against Liberty this Saturday, it would certainly make the Tech fan base happy. Scoring a lot of points is fun, even against FCS teams.
However, Fuente had future first round pick Paxton Lynch at QB in both of those seasons. As yet we don’t know much about Jerod Evans. Perhaps he’s Justin Fuente’s next NFL quarterback. Perhaps he’s a guy who will struggle in his first major college game in a brand new offense.
My gut tells me that Tech’s offense will play well on Saturday, but there will certainly be some hiccups. The quarterback is new, the head coach is new, and the entire system is new. However, Liberty’s numbers were very mediocre on both sides of the ball, and though they have a chance to challenge for the Big South Championship this season, I don’t see any way they’ll be able to hold back Bucky Hodges, Isaiah Ford, Travon McMillian, Sam Rogers and company this weekend.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 44, Liberty 10
Will Stewart’s Take: Let’s light this candle. It’s been a long offseason, with zero scrimmages to look at and very little information coming out of the Hokies program. More than ever before, we need to lay eyes on these guys, to know what we’ve got.
Coach Fuente and his staff have had a long honeymoon, but now it’s time to put a product on the field, where the fans can observe it, praise it, criticize it, second-guess it, and generally slice it and dice it from here to Kingdom Come, as fans are wont to do.
I know that a lot of you open our game previews, scroll to the bottom, and look for the final comments and predictions. That’s fine, but I’m going to disappoint you: I have no clue what’s going to happen here. There was a time where my predictions were getting pretty good, but this team has been hard to nail down the last four seasons, and now they’ve got a new/old coaching staff, new offense, new way of doing things … it’s all just spitballing now, until they get a few games under their belts.
There will be a lot to talk about as the season goes on, but for now, painting with a broad brush, in Liberty I see an FCS program that is mediocre and is starting a lot of new guys, especially in the offensive backfield. I don’t think the Hokies will have much trouble with them, and even if they do, it won’t necessarily mean anything, as nearly everything is brand-new in Blacksburg and will take some fine-tuning.
The long, hopefully not-too-slow climb back to relevancy and competing for the ACC championship starts now. Finally.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 52, Liberty 10
I was going to pick 45-10, but then I decided to tack on another touchdown, just for the heck of it.
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