Liberty held two of Syracuse’s dynamic outside receivers, Trishton Jackson and Taj Harris, relatively in check during last weekend’s game. The two couldn’t get loose vertically down the field, forcing the Orange to turn instead to their running backs in the screen game on third down.
It wasn’t a surprise to see field cornerback Bejour Wilson continue the strong play he carried over from the end of last season against the Syracuse receivers.
The play of Jimmy Faulks, though, was a pleasant surprise for the Flames’ defensive coaching staff. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound redshirt junior limited Syracuse’s offensive production on the boundary. He wasn’t beaten off the line of scrimmage and used his physicality to match up with taller Syracuse receivers.
It was a step in the right direction for Faulks, who redshirted after playing one game last season following two up-and-down campaigns with the Flames.
“From a mental standpoint, from a preparation standpoint, he’s willing to put in the work. It’s just a matter for us that we had to clean up technique, first and foremost,” Flames cornerbacks coach Rickey Hunley Jr. said.
“He’s a long guy, so longer guys usually want to be a more physical guy and want to play to their attributes. I challenged him: We need you to be able to play press, we need you to be able to play off, zone, man, all of those things. He’s just really bought into all of that.”
Faulks’ play against Syracuse was what the previous coaching staff expected out of him after he broke into the cornerback rotation as a true freshman, playing nine games.
He started six of the final eight contests of the 2017 season, then did not see the field in the 2018 opener before returning for Week 2 at Army.
But after the loss to Army, former LU coach Turner Gill and Faulks’ position coach, Marshall Roberts, met with Faulks and decided to redshirt him for the remainder of the season.
Gill and Roberts said the move wasn’t about Faulks’ performance, but rather to give him a chance to mature; instead of being focused on his play, they wanted him to become more team-oriented.
“I feel like I got better as being a better teammate — being there for my brothers, being there to be able to encourage them, being there when things get hard and being there when things go right,” Faulks said. “Basically being a better teammate.”
Hunley knew why Faulks was redshirted for the season and challenged him to continue working to become a better teammate.
“He had a reputation that followed him that he was going to kind of be a ‘me guy’ and wasn’t necessarily going to be on board,” Hunley said. “The first meeting that I had with him, body language was a big deal, and that’s a big deal for me.
“Meeting No. 1, I sat him down and I said, ‘Man, I’ve already got the rap sheet on you, but my challenge to you is to be the opposite. You’ve got all of the makings and intangibles to be a special player, let’s be a special player. But it takes you to do things right on and off the field.’”
Faulks had 21 tackles in his first two seasons. Several of those were tackles from behind when he would allow the outside receiver to get behind him in coverage.
By watching Faulks in game film from his first two seasons, Hunley learned Faulks often was focused too much on the backfield, which resulted in him losing sight of his responsibility.
Hunley said he noticed the same bad habit creep in for Faulks during the spring game.
So he told Faulks not to have “dirty eyes” in the backfield, to make sure he understood what was going on pre-snap, then begin processing the receiver’s body language to know what type of play is coming.
“I think he’s bought into the coaching and bought into Coach Hunley,” defensive coordinator Scott Symons said, “and I think he’s seen how that’s grown his game.”
Faulks and Wilson weren’t the only two cornerbacks to excel against the Orange. Junior college transfer Emmanuel Dabney did not allow a reception on five targets.
True freshman Kei’Trel Clark allowed an early first-half reception, but settled in as the game progressed.
The strong play isn’t lost on Faulks, who understands Hunley’s challenge isn’t just for one game, but for 12 game schedule.
“Basically just embracing the grind, come in every day prepared to work,” Faulks said of his new mindset.
“He told me before the season, ‘I’ve got a lot of high expectations for you,’ and he said, ‘I’m pretty sure you’ll exceed those.’”
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.