Jessie Lemonier and Austin Lewis naturally gravitated toward each other during Liberty’s Summer Bridge program in 2018. The two both were new to the university — Lemonier a transfer from Ventura College in California and Lewis an incoming freshman from Jonesborough, Tennessee — and arrived as highly touted pass-rushing defensive ends.
Over the course of the program, the two bonded and they refer to each other as brothers on and off the field. Lemonier, immediately seeing the potential in Lewis, took it upon himself to teach the young stud everything he could about attacking the quarterback and preparing for the rigors of a lengthy college season.
The relationship became stronger during the tough 2018 campaign and has flourished under the new coaching staff’s tutelage. The two defensive ends are expected to lead a reloaded defensive line that is being asked to set the tone for a unit that struggled in Liberty’s inaugural Football Bowl Subdivision season.
“[There’s] more of a sense of urgency,” Lemonier said after Wednesday’s practice. “We can’t be complacent just sitting back there and just trying to get off blocks casually. We actually have to move. If it’s play-action, we really have to transition into a rush and make sure we keep the quarterback contained in the pocket and actually, like, rush him. Last year, everybody wasn’t on the same page and everything was out of order.”
The Flames’ defense struggled during a 6-6 campaign, especially against the run, with a defensive line rotation that featured only nine of the 15 linemen on the roster seeing any sort of meaningful playing time.
Liberty allowed 221.8 rushing yards per game, tied with Ole Miss for 116th in the nation, and it was one of 22 teams to allow opponents to average more than 5 yards per rushing attempt last season.
Six of the 15 defensive linemen on last season’s roster either graduated or left the program, and new coach Hugh Freeze made it a priority to add seven linemen during the signing period so the team could carry 16 defensive linemen during the season.
One of the linemen on the roster last season who did not play, tackle Elisha Mitchell, is fully healthy now after undergoing surgery near the beginning of last season that forced him to miss spring practices.
“It’s going to help a ton this year, it’s going to be a huge difference,” Lewis said of the added depth. “I can already tell the difference because everybody’s starting … to understand their roles, and it has just really, really helped.”
Lemonier and Lewis have been two of the three leaders on the line — redshirt senior defensive tackle Vincent Elefante is the best vocal leader of the group, according to D-line coach Josh Aldridge — and the ends have emerged as viable pass-rush threats for the defense.
Lemonier thrived in his first season at Liberty with a team-best 10 sacks, while Lewis was recognized as a freshman All-American by the Football Writers Association of America after posting 24 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 12 appearances.
“Jessie, right out the gate, was a very good football player,” Lewis said. “We’re kind of getting toward where we can coach other people instead of him having to just coach me up and stuff like that. It’s a lot of help to him because he’s not alone on the leadership part of the defensive line, because we’ve got other kids like Vincent Elefante and all them that’s also helping me getting the guys going.”
Lemonier and Lewis both benefited from new strength and conditioning coordinator Dominic Studzinski’s summer workout program. Aldridge said Lemonier is “one of the best ones I’ve ever seen” in how hard he practices and plays, and Lewis added 25 pounds of muscle to get to 260 pounds and fill out his 6-foot-6 frame.
“He’s definitely reshaped his body, and it’s benefited him,” Freeze said of Lewis.
The two formidable ends are expected to be aided by improved depth at tackle.
Elefante and Ralfs Rusins are the slated starters inside, and junior college transfers Elijah James, William Green and Devonte Lloyd add size and experience to a group that includes Devin Pearson and Mitchell.
“There’s going to be competition regardless,” Lloyd said. “ … It’s been pretty exciting.”
Aldridge said the three JUCO transfers will play immediately. He and Freeze also are high on three talented freshmen defensive ends — Brayden Monday, Zack Amerson and TreShaun Clark — and he added two, if not all three, will contribute in some way this season.
“They change the look of our team and are certainly people we are excited about in the defensive line room to add depth and competition,” Freeze said. “That’s something we didn’t have in the spring, and I think competition just makes everybody better. It’s a bit early to tell exactly how everybody fits in that, but there’s no question that it changed the look of our team.”
Injury update: Redshirt senior wide receiver Damian King, projected to contend for the starting position at slot receiver, suffered a sprained MCL early in Wednesday’s practice, according to Freeze, and is the second significant injury in as many days for Liberty.
Freshman cornerback Kei’Trel Clark suffered a Grade 2 shoulder sprain in the AC joint, and Freeze said he hopes the recovery will not last long.
“He got dinged [Tuesday], and he was having a heck of a camp,” Freeze said of Clark. “He’s going to play this year, provided he’s healthy, because he’s really, really talented.”