Liberty vs. Syracuse

Liberty flames storm the field before the first game of the season against Syracuse on Saturday, August 31, 2019 at Williams Stadium.

My plan for bringing back the Flames Mailbag for this season was to fly in early to Lafayette, Louisiana, settle in after eating some cajun food, and get to the questions that came in for a Friday afternoon post to hold everyone over until the high school football slate began.

Breaking news had other plans.

In case you haven’t heard, Liberty purchased a special medical chair and had it shipped to Cajun Field to be placed in the visitors coaches’ booth for Liberty football coach Hugh Freeze to use Saturday. While there is no word whether Freeze will travel or not, the university ensured he would be comfortable if his surgically repaired back cooperates.

After finally getting settled into the hotel here in Lafayette, I was able to get to this week’s questions. So without further adieu, we dive into this week’s mailbag:

Is there a qb competition going on this week between Buckshot and Johnathan Bennett? Also what will be the keys to success for the Flames in order to win against LA-LAFAYETTE Saturday? Thanks!

— Zachary, Lynchburg

The first question is easy: There is no quarterback competition between Buckshot Calvert and Johnathan Bennett. Calvert is the entrenched starter and will need to experience catastrophic results in order to lose the starting job to Bennett. Bennett, a true freshman, has two series of action at the college level, so he’s not at the stage yet where the staff will hand him over the keys to the offense.

I have a full breakdown of Liberty’s keys to the game in Saturday’s post previewing the game, and those keys will appear in the Saturday edition of The News & Advance. We’re adding a new half-page Gameday preview with which team has the edge in offense, defense, special teams and intangibles (you may have noticed that in last week’s post previewing the game) and also the three keys to the game for Liberty.

With Liberty’s move to the FBS, we wanted to expand our coverage of the football team in the print product, as well as what we offer online to the readers. The half-page Gameday preview serves as the first of many steps we’re taking at The News & Advance to enhance our coverage of the football program and continue to prove we are the top local source for Liberty football content.

Now, back to the first question …

It is completely plausible to see Calvert develop and became the quarterback the Flames need him to be this season. We are going off a one-game sample size in this offense, so there is plenty of room for him to improve. He even admitted to his miscues against Syracuse and took the blame for his interceptions and some of the sacks. That takes a lot of courage to do in front of the media, and I applaud Calvert for taking ownership when he made the wrong decisions. Now, he also made some right decisions, especially early in the game when Syracuse was unable to get its pressure to him.

My matchup to watch for last week’s game was Liberty’s offensive tackles against the Syracuse defensive ends, and I ended that matchup by saying that when the offensive line gives Calvert a clean pocket, he is able to pick apart defenses. When he had a clean pocket against the Orange, he was able to complete passes and move the offense down the field.

As he gets more and more comfortable with the offense, especially at game speed, and the offensive line gives him time to throw, you will see improvement.

Man, I’m finishing off these answers by leading into the next questions. That doesn’t happen very often.

Former LU wide receiver Pat Kelly already chimed in on this one by saying half of the Orange’s eight sacks were because Calvert held onto the ball too long as the pocket collapsed. He has studied more film in his life than I have, so if he sees something, he usually knows what he’s talking about.

But I did go back and watch the game on the ESPN+ replay, and Syracuse defensive ends Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman were freakishly explosive off the edges and often got by Liberty’s offensive tackles without much resistance. And, like Kelly mentioned, there were instances in which Calvert had the necessary time to release the pass, but didn’t.

Again, this was the first game of the season, in a new offensive scheme, and against a Top 25 team. Liberty had its chances, especially early on, and didn’t take advantage. I think that is why Freeze earlier this week issued open competitions on the offensive line to see who would answer the call and help keep Calvert clean in the pocket. I have a feeling the starters, especially the ones who felt they didn't perform well against Syracuse, made it a point of emphasis to improve.

I'd say the offensive line gets its shot against Louisiana, and if the struggles continue, then you may see things changed, and it goes back to the open competition Freeze issued earlier in the week. Maisen Knight didn’t play in the opener, but the line of Jonathan Graham, Ethan Crawford, John Kourtis, Brendan Schlittler and Cooper McCaw got in for the final two series against the Orange. That group consists of three of the five talented redshirt freshmen who were recruited to play at the FBS level, so yes, it would seem logical to get them some action if there are struggles with the starters. And don’t forget Jacob Bodden, who took a significant number of reps as the second-string left guard in training camp.

But I can also see a player like Crawford, a veteran who has played a myriad of positions, possibly line up at both guard positions and even right tackle, if necessary. Crawford, however, is the emergency center and much better equipped to play at guard.

As I stated before in the previous answers, Syracuse featured a pair of explosive defensive ends Liberty likely won’t see again this season. Saturday’s game at Louisiana should serve as a better indication of how the offensive line stacks up against defensive linemen who are on more of a level footing.

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

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

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