Liberty senior Buckshot Calvert has been anointed the starting quarterback heading into the season opener against Syracuse. Malik Willis, the Auburn transfer, is turning heads early in training camp with his dual-threat ability.
Those two have garnered plenty of attention during the first full week of training camp. The lack of attention surrounding Johnathan Bennett doesn’t bother the true freshman one bit, as he continues to prepare with the mindset he will see the field in special packages throughout the season.
“It doesn’t really change anything for me,” Bennett said. “I’m going to continue what I did in the spring and keep competing like I did in the spring, keep watching film, approaching practice the same way every day. It didn’t really change much for me, but as far as a team, we’ve got to bring it, we’ve got to bring it this year. We’re playing someone in a month that brought the same caliber [of competition] that Malik came from — Power 5 — so we’ve got to be ready.”
Bennett, a midyear enrollee, created a buzz in the program with his performance in the spring game. He threw for 186 yards and one touchdown on 9-of-15 passing and helped the offense overcome a second-half deficit to defeat the defense.
The Summerville, South Carolina, native possesses the traits that fit in the Flames’ offensive scheme with his strong decision-making skills and keen running ability. Those were key factors in Flames coach Hugh Freeze’s pitch for Bennett to enroll in January instead of waiting until the summer to arrive on campus.
“I am very pleased with JB’s progression,” Freeze said. “Now obviously coming in at midyear, it changes what he is in fall camp. You can imagine if he just showed up this summer and is trying to do some of those things, so obviously spring really helped him. [He] is certainly competing to earn that backup spot right now.”
Bennett’s progression includes the transformation of his body since arriving on campus and working with strength and conditioning coach Dominic Studzinski. Bennett weighed 216 pounds in January, bulked up to 222 in the spring and now weighs in at 225 pounds.
He said in addition to the muscle he gained, he also lost fat.
“I was chubby. They took a before picture of me, showed me the after picture and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy,’” he said. “I lost fat and I gained some muscle, and it’s been a nice transition.”
Freeze said one week ago the university is expected to file an appeal on Willis’ behalf to seek immediate eligibility for the signal caller. If the NCAA approves the appeal, Willis then becomes the ideal No. 2 quarterback behind Calvert after appearing in 15 games over two seasons at Auburn.
That would also allow Bennett to redshirt this season to still preserve a year of eligibility.
“I think everybody’s goal coming into the season is to get on the field. Nobody comes into the year thinking, ‘Oh yeah, I’m just going to sit and be content with sitting all year,’” Bennett said. “If coach Freeze feels like the best thing for the team is for me to be on the field, then so be it. If not, then it’s OK. I’ll continue to learn and watch Buck, Malik, whoever goes in there, and just be the best guy I can be.”
If the NCAA denies Willis’ appeal, Bennett becomes the clear-cut backup to Calvert.
Freeze and co-offensive coordinator Kent Austin said in the spring they envision installing packages for Bennett to get him playing time as a freshman.
Even if Bennett is not utilized in every game, it forces opposing defenses to scheme for multiple quarterbacks.
“JB has outstanding intangibles. He’s somebody that possesses natural leadership qualities,” said Austin, who is also the quarterbacks coach. “He’s another guy that cares quite a bit in being as good as he can be and to reach his ceiling with whatever God gave him physically and mentally and emotionally. To reach his ceiling, JB understands that. He’s one of our better decision-makers in the room right now, even as a freshman, which says a lot about his maturity and the growth that he’s experienced since he’s been here.”
Bennett’s short and intermediate passing game was groomed at Summerville High School, but his deep passes were refined in the spring by Austin. Bennett’s 59-yard touchdown pass to Shedro Louis in the spring game — a perfectly thrown seam pass into the freshman’s hands on the run into the end zone — highlighted the steps he took to perfect his game in all aspects.
“Coach Austin has helped me a lot as far as my mechanics. Mechanics carry over, no matter whether it’s a short pass or a deep pass; mechanics stay consistent,” Bennett said. “That’s what I’ve been working on through the last half of spring when I started playing better than I was in the beginning. I owe the credit to coach Austin for that.”
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.