Liberty Football 03

Liberty coach Hugh Freeze celebrates after his team scores a touchdown against Hampton at Williams Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019. 

Liberty football coach Hugh Freeze announced Monday that true freshman quarterback Johnathan Bennett will miss the remainder of the season after suffering a left-knee injury celebrating a touchdown early in Saturday’s game against Hampton.

Bennett suffered a patella tendon rupture when his knee buckled during the celebration with fellow quarterback Brandon Robinson. Robinson, a redshirt freshman, scored on a 2-yard touchdown run on his first collegiate play.

“He is out for the season, which is unfortunate,” Freeze said of Bennett. “We’ll get him ready and he’ll work to get back. I’ve said it many times that injuries are the most difficult part of coaching, and all he wanted to do. My initial reaction was I want to get on him, but then he was so excited for his teammate, that’s what you want in a teammate. Just a freak thing that happened and it’s unfortunate for him.”

Bennett, who appeared in the season’s first two games, will receive a redshirt year and have four seasons of eligibility remaining.

The injury news seemed a little more optimistic for the Flames entering this weekend’s home game against New Mexico, with four players highlighted by Freeze.

  • On cornerback Emanuel Dabney, who suffered a hamstring injury in the second half against Hampton: “The report yesterday is he’s day-to-day for practice. I would anticipate him trying to go, but have no idea until we practice tomorrow exactly kind of where he is. That’s the case with several guys.”
  • On cornerback Bejour Wilson, who suffered a foot sprain in the fourth quarter against Buffalo: “Bejour will play. You won’t be able to keep him off the field. At what percent he’ll be, I don’t know, but he’ll play.”
  • On safety Isaac Steele: “Isaac has struggled with a hamstring for a while now. The report today was he was about 85 percent this morning. We’re hopeful that he’ll be able to play also.”
  • On wide receiver Noah Frith, who suffered a fracture in his left foot during training camp: “He did go through our red zone work yesterday that we do on Sundays and I anticipate him playing.”

Alves, Mock awarded scholarships

Liberty punter Aidan Alves and long snapper Austin Mock were celebrating Saturday’s victory over Hampton when Freeze gathered the team around for an announcement: The two special teams players were being awarded scholarships.

The announcement and mob scene around the two were captured on the football program’s social media platforms.

“It’s become a thing, I think, around college football and I didn’t want to make ours too big of a deal,” Freeze said Monday. “I thought through this for quite a while now because I want to be prudent in who deserves them and when they get them and all of those things. You obviously have to manage the roster limit, but those two have performed extraordinarily well, and when you have one available, I think they’ve earned it.

“I talked to both sets of parents the night before and almost forgot about it. We got through celebrating the win and I was getting ready to walk off and I saw one of them, and thank God I did because that’s when I wanted to do it after that game. It’s special for those families. I think through all scenarios, too. You wish you could give one to everybody that spends every hour with you on that team. You hurt for those because there are others that want them, too, but you celebrate with those kids and their families, and they’re very deserving of it.”

Alves is enjoying a stellar redshirt sophomore campaign after several struggles last season when he took over the role on a full-time basis. He is averaging 41.1 yards per punt and has pinned seven of his 21 punts inside the 20. He boomed a 73-yard punt against Hampton to match his career best and the punt was downed at the 1-yard line.

Mock, a Liberty Christian Academy product, is in his second season as the long snapper and was the only shoe-in starter for special teams coach Tanner Burns during training camp.

“That’s a joy that you have as a coach, and happy for both Aidan and Austin,” Freeze said. “They’re both very deserving, and they’ve done a great job for us this season. I’m happy to do that.”

The ups and downs of special teams

Liberty’s special teams unit will be remembered most from Saturday’s game for having three returns (two punt and one kickoff) called back for penalties.

But the Flames’ ability to limit opposing teams’ field position off kickoffs and punts has been a highlight through four weeks.

Liberty ranks ninth in the nation in kickoff return defense (allowing 13.0 yards per return) and is 69th in punt return defense at 6.63 yards per return. The team’s net punting of 42.14 yards is 73rd in the nation.

“Our kickoff cover unit has done a phenomenal job,” Freeze said. “I thought our punting team the other night when we had to pin teams down did an outstanding job.”

Here are how those numbers compare to last season:

  • Kickoff return defense: 22.37 yards (102nd)
  • Punt return defense: 11.07 yards allowed per return (109th)
  • Net punting: 32.0 yards (129th) (only Boise State’s 31.71 average was worse)

The Flames rank 125th in the nation in punt return average at 0.13 yards per return, but they had two returns for touchdowns called back by penalties against the Pirates that would have helped those numbers dramatically. (Liberty ranked 46th in the nation in punt return average last season with 10.46 yards per return.)

DJ Stubbs appeared to have a 64-yard return for a score early in the first quarter, but it was nullified by a block in the back near midfield

Shedro Louis’ 94-yard kickoff return touchdown was negated by a holding penalty on Khaleb Coleman behind the play, and the speedy freshman had a 67-yard punt return TD called back for an illegal block in the back by Kei’Trel Clark late in the third quarter.

“I think Tanner Burns is doing just an extraordinary job, I really do,” Freeze said of his special teams coordinator. “Obviously he was upset with the penalties. Two of them I questioned — one I really, really questioned — and the other I questioned, too. One was a legit call that affected the play. So he was frustrated with those penalties.

“If we had those three returns the other night, we’d be way up there,” Freeze added.

The Flames are 56th in the nation in kickoff returns at 21.56 yards, up from the 19.19 yards and 92nd ranking they had last season.

The other special teams gaffe from Saturday was when Clark, engaged in a block on a safe punt return, had the ball bounce off his helmet and roll into the end zone where Hampton recovered for a touchdown.

“Obviously our safe punt team we had not been coached well enough on that to get the bounce off of a helmet,” Freeze said. “That should not happen in safe punt — no way, no shape, no form should that happen — because we’re not trying to return the ball, we just want to have possession of the ball after the punt. Tanner is the first one to say that’s on me, I haven’t covered that with this cornerback particularly.”

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Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.

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