It almost became habit last season to glance first at the bottom of the Football Bowl Subdivision statistical defensive rankings to find where Liberty stood among the 130-team subdivision.
The Flames’ inaugural season in college football’s top tier was ultimately dictated by a defense that surrendered points and yards in bunches and was unable to make stands when the offense did its job and marched down the field to score touchdowns.
Through six games this season under a new coaching staff, Liberty is riding a four-game winning streak thanks to a defensive resurgence that has the Flames among the national leaders in several statistical categories.
“What I told them [Monday] is if you look at the improvement from last year’s team to this year’s team defensively, that’s why we’re 4-2,” Liberty coach Hugh Freeze said after Tuesday’s practice. “Offensively they scored a bunch of points last year and we’re trying to manage the game. Should we have scored a lot more points? Yes. Defensively, we’re still not perfect in any way and we’ve got some deficiencies, but man they’re playing hard.
“Just look at what they’ve held the FBS opponents to over a scoring average in our four wins, we’re going to win a lot of games if we can keep teams around that 13 to 20 point-per-game deal.”
Liberty has held its past three FBS opponents (Buffalo, New Mexico and New Mexico State) to 17, 10 and 13 points, respectively, and the triumph over FCS Hampton featured the Pirates scoring 15 of their 27 points in the second half when younger players received significant snaps against HU’s first-team offense.
The recent run of success on defense has seen the Flames jump into a tie for 35th nationally in scoring defense (21 points allowed per game) and up to sixth in red-zone defense, with opponents only scoring on 12 of 20 trips inside their 20-yard line.
The new coaching staff, led by defensive coordinator Scott Symons, has also allowed younger players to see the field on a more consistent basis this season, which is a drastic change from last season under former defensive coordinator Robert Wimberly.
Defensive end Austin Lewis was the only freshman to consistently play last season, while JaVon Scruggs played on special teams and sporadically at cornerback.
This season, three true freshmen (cornerbacks Kei’Trel Clark and Chris Megginson and defensive end TreShaun Clark) have played in all six games and a fourth (Micah Glaize) has played in five straight as Elijah Benton’s backup at rover.
Nickelback Tayvion Land and defensive end Brayden Monday have each played in four games and are expected to receive more playing time in the season’s second half.
“Those guys have really improved over time. We can see their maturity and they’re willing to come in and step in to the role and just do what they’ve got to do,” redshirt senior defensive end Jessie Lemonier said after the victory at New Mexico State. “That’s what’s happening to them. They’re trusting the process, trusting our vision of this team and buying in.”
Their roles have increased over the past several weeks with injuries plaguing the defense, and the first of two off weeks comes at an ideal time to get many of the veteran defensive players healed for the next four games before the second off week.
Cornerbacks Bejour Wilson, Emanuel Dabney and Jimmy Faulks have missed various amounts of time with an assortment of injuries; safety Isaac Steele has battled a nagging hamstring injury throughout the season; linebacker Brandon Tillmon did not play the final three quarters this past weekend at New Mexico State; and two junior college transfers at defensive tackle (Devonte Lloyd and William Green) haven’t been able to make an impact because of setbacks.
The defensive line has remained relatively healthy during the season’s first six weeks, and the return of nose guard Elisha Mitchell helped solidify a unit that is averaging 2.5 sacks per game (50th in the nation) and is a big reason for the Flames allowing opponents to convert less than 40% on both third and fourth downs.
“I think if we get everybody healthy, we could have a consistent run of defense,” Freeze said. “The other night we had way too many out. We need these older kids, we need them to get healthy and get back with us where Kei’Trel’s not playing 76 snaps, but he had to the other night.”
The turnaround comes one season after Liberty ranked 117th in the nation in both scoring defense (36.8 points per game) and rushing defense (221.8 yards per game) and came in at 123rd in total defense (484.8 yards per game).
The Flames allowed 38 or more points eight times, and the offense scored more than 20 points in five of those games.
Freeze wanted to avoid those games repeating themselves this season, especially after he experienced those same situations in his final two seasons at Mississippi (2015 and ‘16).
“I just, really just knew at the next stop the priority that had to be put on defense,” he said. “I think we could have probably scored some more points if I would take the foot off the brake a little bit, but I’m just really trying to play complementary football and I think our defense has sensed that, ‘You guys are a priority for us and you hold people to field goals and get turnovers, and offense you take care of the ball, we might can find a way to win a few games.’”
Reach Damien Sordelett at (434) 385-5550.